Lawmakers Divided On The Value Of A Proposed Ethics Commission

Jan 18, 2016

Vermont is one of just three states across the country without an ethics commission in place. Backers of the plan say this kind of panel is needed before major ethical problems emerge. But some key lawmakers remain skeptical about the idea.

Washington Sen. Anthony Pollina envisions a five-person commission that has an executive director and several investigators on staff. The commission would initially investigate conflicts of interest and other ethical issues involving state officials and legislators.

"What we have right now is either, [we have] no way to resolve these questions or we have elected officials investigating other elected officials, which doesn't make any sense at all,” says Pollina. “It's really important that we have a way to remove the process from politics and have an independent commission try to resolve the questions."

Secretary of State Jim Condos strongly supports the creation of an ethics commission.

“We have very few cases where there are problems,” Condos says, “but there are those cases and those are the ones we need to address."

"It's really important that we have a way to remove the process from politics and have an independent commission try to resolve the questions." — Sen. Anthony Pollina, Washington County

Windham Sen. Jeanette White is the chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. She has her doubts about creating a state ethics commission. First, she says, it's expensive.

"It costs a lot of money,” White says. “I'm not sure that we can spend that kind of money right now. It has been estimated that it would cost between $500,000 and $600,000 to set this up." 

But Pollina says that's a small price to pay to help maintain public confidence in government.

"We've entered a lot of murky waters in recent years,” Pollina says. “And [we have had] a lot of questions about potential conflicts and I think making an investment in an ethics commission is one of the better investments we could make.”

"The constitution says we're responsible for our own and I could be convinced otherwise, but I'd have to be convinced." — Sen. Jeanette White, Windham County

White also sees a potential legal problem. She says the Vermont Constitution clearly states that only the House and the Senate can discipline their own members.

“The constitution says we're responsible for our own and I could be convinced otherwise, but I'd have to be convinced,” she explained.

Secretary Condos has a solution to this problem. That's to have the ethics commission investigate cases and then make recommendations to either the House or Senate to act on.

Condos also wants the commission to review cases involving municipal employees. But Pollina says he'd rather start with a smaller agenda to see how the concept works.