Municipal Ethics - Feb 21-23, 2024

The first witness before the House Government Operation Committee on Wednesday was Carol Parsons (Retired Executive Director, Connecticut Office of State Ethics). She held many positions within Connecticut and Massachusetts Ethics Commissions.

She commended the Committee for their efforts to strengthen Vermont’s ethics laws where legislators and employees are acting in the best interest of the public. She noted the three things critical for the success of an ethics commission:

  1. Independence
  2. Adequate Funding
  3. Enforcement authority

Providing advice and education are important as well, but to a lesser extent. She noted that Massachusetts covers municipalities plus state entities. Everyone knows everyone in small towns, so what is important is that there is uniformity from town to town with clear guidance for all. So, one standard is best for everyone. If the Ethics Commission has a model code the towns should adopt it and newly elected officials should be trained. 

A member of the Committee asked whether the training should be mandated. Parson thinks that the training is important and perhaps, like Massachusetts, should be offered on-line so if made mandatory it can be attended at the individual’s convenience. It is important to remember that the training is not for the ‘benefit of’ the elected/appointed official but so they can help others.

Parsons noted that Massachusetts will provide public official representation when a complaint has been filed assuming that 1) they have attended training in a timely manner and 2) ultimately they are found not to have violated the code.

Parsons said she was in favor of mandatory training except for very high-ranking officials. If taken electronically, a form is available which can be submitted to a town affirming that the training was completed. The more training the fewer complaints will be generated.  Initially there is an increase as people are being educated but then over time the complaints lessen because both the public and office holders are informed.

Ted Brady (Executive Director, Vermont League of Cities and Towns) was asked to testify. He referenced a letter that he submitted to the Committee dated January 24, 2024.  The letter focused on the following:

‘We support the fundamental goal of establishing ethical standards, educating people about those standards, and holding people accountable to those standards at the municipal level.

He presented three critical points that he hoped the committee would review:

  • Municipal ethics expectations and accountability should be centered at the municipal level.
  • The state should invest in the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT’s) capabilities to help municipalities meet ethics requirements.
  • Avoid creating a parallel system to hear and investigate municipal ethics concerns outside of municipal government and the existing judicial system (i.e. no independent oversight).

Brady argued that the current proposal “largely ignores these three critical points,” and as such, they do not support the proposal’s approach to addressing concerns about municipal ethics.  But VLCT does support:

  1. The concept of an Ethics Ombudsman.
  2. increased training and education about ethics.

The League has “significant concerns” as follows:

  • They claim that the bill would the relatively new conflict of interest prohibition. Building on this section would be the best path forward, not repealing it.
  • Section 3 of the draft bill creates a new municipal code of ethics, modeled on the state code of ethics. They are concerns about approach including:
    • The entire proposed construct doesn’t require an affirmative action by a legislative body (i.e. the Legislature doesn’t vote on the code of ethics before it goes into effect).
    • The existing conflict of interest law requires a town to adopt a policy, own the policy, and hold itself accountable to the policy.
    • They believe the language voids any municipal action taken if a conflict of interest is ever discovered. This essentially means no decision is ever settled, as years later a legal action could undue a decision based on a perceived conflict.
    • The bill establishes employment prohibitions that mirror state ethics prohibitions on outside employment and post-office employment. Brady argued that paid, career politicians and government executives are different from volunteer selectboard members with no authority outside of a board vote.
    • Finally, VLCT urged the Committee to enact voter-accountability through recall authority. Brady noted that the best enforcement and remedy of an unethical municipal official is their ouster from office.  In the case of elected officials, “the buck stops with the voter.”

In his testimony to the Committee, Brady shared that every city and town in Vermont belongs to the League. VLCT provides training and has an ethics video which they make available to new office holders.

NOTE: It is unclear the level of participation in these trainings or how effective they are. Recent news articles have shown gaps in training and ethical conduct of municipal officials. 

Brady expressed his concern that if ethics is mandated it might lead to a list of other trainings that would also be made mandatory.  Ted said that some of his members are questioning the impartiality of the Commission. He argued, incorrectly, that the Commission makes public the complaints it receives. And that the League addresses complaints but only shares their findings with those involved on a need-to-know basis.

NOTE: The entire reason for this bill is that regular citizens would not think to approach VLCT with an ethics complaint, and even if they do there is no formal process to resolve the complaint. The state Ethics Commission does have a process and people are sending them complaints now. These complaints ARE kept confidential unless it is determined that an ethical violation has occurred.

A member asked what if a municipality does not comply. Brady responded that there are several procedures in place now to hold people or town accountable (he did not elaborate).

A member asked how costly have some of these complaints been. Brady said that in the three years he has been at the League there has not been any complaint that has led to a costly settlement. He did say that there have been instances where town employees have been found guilty of criminal activity which have cost the towns funding – and of course there was a serious breach of ethics.

Chairman McCarthy had thought that the Committee could vote on Friday but given today’s testimony he realized that the Committee was not at a place where he could call the question but hoped, they could reach an agreement next week.

McCarthy recognized Carol Dawes (City Clerk, Barre) who is head of the Town Clerk Association. She shared that they were in support of the concept in general – particularly about training.  She also thinks it would be a good idea to have a central repository to receive complaints. However, she cautioned that they should not try to paint municipalities with the “same brush” as state agencies. She also commented that the current language does not take into consideration the differences between municipalities.

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