Municipal Ethics - March 12-15, 2024

The Ethics Bill, Draft 24-0229 was passed out of the House Government Operations Committee after many hours of testimony and work by the Committee.  The final bill combined the two draft Ethics Bills that the Committee was working with – one focused on municipal ethics and the other on creating independent oversight authority for the Vermont Ethics Commission.  The final bill was passed out of committee on a 10 to 2 vote and will now receive a bill number and will appear on the House floor for a vote of the full body.

The Committee heard considerable testimony from numerous interested parties, to include the Vt. League of Cities and Towns, many municipalities, selectboard members and various interested parties. 

One particular issue which arose a few days ago was the realization that the municipal ethics bill did not include schools or school boards. The Secretary of State (SOS) in a letter to the Committee stated their support of the bill but did point out as well that the bill did not include schools and school boards. The SOS provided several recommendations which were accepted by the Committee and incorporated into the language of the bill. But the Committee chose not to expand the scope of the Municipal Ethics Bill to include schools and school boards at this point. Chairman McCarthy noted that this could be considered in the next legislative session. The Ethics Commission had advised the Committee that it would clearly need additional staff to handle the addition of schools and school boards (let alone municipalities that are included here).

McCarthy noted that that the Committee had a decision to make – whether we should have one fundamental code for the entire state along with the means to make sure it works or stick with the current model which leaves it up to the towns (and disparate ethics policies). He said that what we have is a diversity of folks, some of whom do amazing work in fostering a culture of ethics, and others who “leave it to the voters” to deal with the issue.  He also said that when the code was being discussed for state government, the Committee heard the same concerns about the burden implementing a statewide code of ethics would create, those concerns did not bear out with the Judiciary, Executive Branch, and the Legislature.  McCarthy continued to say that having a culture of ethics supported by education is healthy and good. It provides insurance against a municipality being sued and residents being distrustful of the government.

Legislative Council provided a summary of the bill, which proposes to do the following:

  • Require that certain county officers both running for and holding office file financial disclosures.
  • Create penalties for delinquent disclosures for candidates and for State office, county office, State Senator and State Representative.
  • Grant the State Ethics Commission powers to investigate, hold hearings, and to issue warnings, reprimands, and recommended actions.
  • Create a full-time, exempt Legal Counsel position in the State Ethics Commission and reclassify the Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission from a part-time to a full-time exempt State employee.
  • Add a member to the State Ethics Commission to be appointed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
  • Create a uniform Municipal Code of Ethics.
  • Repeal redundant municipal ethics laws and require municipal officers currently in office to complete initial training.
  • Creates whistleblower protections for municipal employees.
  • It also strengthens existing disclosure requirements and clarifies the existing duties of the State Ethics Commission.
  • The new disclosure definitions include:
    • Sources of personal income of more than $5,000 from an employer.
    • If self-employed, a description of the nature of the self-employment information.
    • Membership and position on any board or commission.
    • Loans made to a company if the candidate owned more than 10% of that company.
    • Companies in which the candidate has an ownership or controlling interest that does business with the state or municipality.
    • Description of controlled publicly trade assets valued at $25,000, or more and municipal bonds issues by the State of Vermont.
    • The full name of the candidate’s spouse or domestic partner.

 

See the full summary for more information.


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