McQuiston: Ethics Commission Objections

Sep 2, 2015

Secretary of State Jim Condos and others are right to call for transparency and open government. But they’re wrong about calling for an Ethics Commission.

Presumably, such a panel would rule independently and keep an eye on government officials. It would act like the Public Service Board, which is a quasi-judicial, appointed board that regulates utilities.

But I just can’t see why it’s necessary since most ethics complaints regard the revolving door or personal relationships.

This is Vermont. It’s a small state. Frequently the best person for the job is someone who’s married to someone else who’s in an important position, or is someone with an area of expertise who worked outside of government, or someone who once worked in government, worked outside and then came back. If there’s a revolving door involved but everyone knows it, then it’s not a big deal.

And if voters don’t like the way elected officials are acting, they can, if they so desire, vote the bums out, if that’s what they think they are. And if there’s actual criminal activity, then the legal system can get involved.

But beyond the lack of a true need for an Ethics Commission, there’s also the nature of it. The people currently in power will appoint the Ethics Commission. The taxpayers will have to pay for it. The Vermont Supreme Court will probably have to oversee it. This will absolutely add another layer of time-devouring bureaucracy.

A commission is an easy way out that could also further distance us from personal responsibility by passing it off to a third party. And while it might solve some sort of problem at times, the cost would be great. Condos downplays the cost of this extra layer of bureaucracy, but it would certainly require staff, an office, a Website to build and maintain, costs of hearings, and the inevitable legal costs.

Still, it’s not the cost or the bureaucracy that’s the problem. The hard truth is that Vermont just doesn’t need an Ethics Commission. The biggest problems we truly see regarding government officials relate to campaign finance, and there are laws already governing that.

As Secretary Condos has seen firsthand, every governor, legislative committee and school board wants to keep as much as possible under wraps.

The goal is for open government.

The ultimate ethics commission is the general election.

Yes to transparency, but no to an Ethics Commission.

* For other points of view on the Ethics Commission, find more commentaries at VPR.net or on your smartphone.