Delaney: Ethical Concerns

Aug 21, 2015

There’s a new hot issue abroad in Vermont-land that’s giving me serious pause.

It’s a proposal in the legislature – House Bill 215 - to fashion a long list of ethics rules for elected and appointed office holders, then create a commission to monitor compliance with those rules and, yes, to punish those who may flaunt them with possible fines of up to ten thousand dollars. Notice we’re talking about rules here, not laws.

I first heard about this proposal at a Rotary Club breakfast, and soon after at a relaxed afternoon gathering in a South Burlington backyard – an annual event I always enjoy. Usually guests bandy about a number of issues, but this year there were just two, and discussion was intense – about the legalization of marijuana and the creation of an ethics commission. I was blown away by the fervor on both sides of these two issues – so later at home I fired up my computer, did a Google search, and plowed through 15 pages of House Bill 215, proposing to establish a Vermont Ethics Commission.

While an act like embezzling is both a breach of ethics and a crime, most ethical lapses do not actually break any laws. Discussion of ethics goes all the way back to Aristotle and has more to do with character and behavior than criminal action or intent.
Ethics is not, and cannot be, an exact science. In fact, it might be easier to straighten the noodles in a bowl of spaghetti than to determine what is and is not acceptable ethical behavior.

Nevertheless, one section of the proposed legislation calls for the Commission to “receive and investigate complaints” – possibly creating a whole new category of disincentive to public service, and leading me to wonder how much time and money would be spent determining whether reported faults or questionable behavior might be real - or merely perceived.

The bill also requires all elected and appointed officials earning more than $40,000 per year to file financial disclosures with the newly created Ethics Commission. Move over IRS.

Back in Puritan New England many behaviors were condemned as sinful even when they didn’t break any civil laws – resulting in an atmosphere of witch hunts and suspicion.

I hope we’ll proceed down this road with caution. A commission is one thing, while an inquisition is quite another.