Vermont, we have a unique opportunity on our hands. When the legislative session kicks off this January, lawmakers will be asked to re-allocate funds for the newly created Ethics Committee, and in doing so take a critical step towards a foundational element of a more prosperous state. It is up to us to demand action. If we cannot trust government officials to act in our best interest, then reforms in healthcare, education, and economic development will never reach their full potential.
What was passed in 2017 under the initial legislation was only a shadow of what the public demanded, and a fraction of what a non-partisan group of organizations ( including CFV, ACLU, VPIRG, and the Ethan Allen Institute) fought for. Instead of listening to our desires, the majority of our legislators ignored our calls and side-stepped their duty to ensure strong accountability and transparency measures.
All language giving the Commission the tools it needed to be truly effective was stripped away. Legislators created an ethics body with few means to uphold accountability and a glaring lack of authority and transparency. As established, the Commission can do little more than serve as a referral group, simply taking complaints at face value, comparing them to a checklist, and sending them on in hopes that the receiving agency won’t sweep it under the rug. They have no enforcement ability, nor means to compel information in support of a due diligence investigation. Even if a registered complaint is found by the commission to violate the established principals of ethical conduct, there is no guarantee that the involved person will be held accountable once the issue is handed off.
On January 15th, the Vermont Ethics Commission published its 2018 Annual Report. In it, they listed a series of recommendations that would help strengthen trust between the State and the citizens it serves. Among those suggestions were requests that the Legislature:
- Bestow a level of investigative authority that allows the commission to validate and contextualize complaints.
- Create a full-time examiner/investigator position.
- Create a part-time administrator position.
- Clarify language that requests for advisory opinions are limited to those made by executive officers, legislators, or other state employees who are subject to the VT State Code of Ethics.
These are all good recommendations and should be followed. Vermonters deserve a strong system for ethical accountability. We need a robust Ethics Commission that serves the public in a way that leaves voters with confidence and trust.
An Ethics Commission that serves the public should give citizens a line through which they can register an ethical complaint, confident that it will receive its due diligence. Those complaints need to first be reviewed in the context of the Ethical Code of Conduct. Cases confirmed as being in conflict should be passed on to an investigator whose job is to confirm their veracity, and, if they are determined to be legitimate, an official case can be built which is then adjudicated through the Office of the Attorney General.
Simultaneously it must also serve as a resource for our state officials, providing clarification and education when needed. Not only should lawmakers be allowed access to guiding advisory opinions on what is or isn’t a direct code violation, but the Ethics Commission could also help advise politicians and agents on how certain actions could be perceived as negative by the public.
As we’ve seen, the will to make this happen does not exist in State Government. The only way we can move toward building this system is if we make them listen. You have a voice, and it matters. Use it. Call, write, and email your representative. Check-in often. If you don’t hear back, do it again and again until you do. We were ignored before, but we must be loud enough that they can’t turn their heads. If we just shrug our shoulders and shake our heads, we have lost. If we fall for the same illegitimate excuses – there’s no need, it’s too much money, it will be used as a political weapon – we have lost. The people who don’t want to be held accountable, the people who don’t want transparency, the people who aren’t concerned with demonstrating they are, in fact, serving us Vermonters – those people will have won.
Here are three easy ways you can help us in our fight for a more prosperous and economically secure Vermont.
- Make a financial contribution. Your support will go directly toward engaging an educated public in issues of vital importance and putting people in the statehouse to fight for you.
- Contact your legislator and ask them what they are doing for you. Politicians work for us. In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “we the people elect leaders not to rule, but to serve.”
- Follow us on social media. Keep up with the latest updates and opportunities for action.