In Montpelier, A Debate Over The Role Of A Proposed Ethics Commission

Jan 17, 2017

Backers of legislation that would create an Ethics Commission in Vermont say they're optimistic about the future of their bill. But some critics argue that the proposal doesn't go nearly far enough to restore public trust in the operations of government.

There's a lot of interest in this bill because Vermont is just one of three states in the country that doesn't have some sort of ethics review panel in place.

Washington Sen. Anthony Pollina is a co-sponsor of this year's legislation. He thinks the outlook for it is excellent.

"The Senate passed a bill last year, but it took a long time, and there's a lot of debate went into it,” said Pollina. “This year, we're going to start off with that same bill that passed the Senate, so we've done a lot of the work that needed to be done." 

Pollina's bill includes a part-time staff that would look at complaints and then refer them to the attorney general's office for further review. The senator says it's more important for the commission to focus on education than enforcement at this time.

“[It's about] being able to have a place where the public and others can go and raise questions that might be ethical questions,” said Pollina. "And have a truly independent board or commission look at those allegations and direct them towards the people who might be able to better investigate and enforce the ethics rules."

The decision to start small doesn't sit well with Secretary of State Jim Condos. He wants the commission to have several staff members who can conduct their own investigations. He argues it's a big mistake to pass along these key functions to another agency in state government.

"It has to be able to have enough resources to be able to do its job, it has to have the authority to do its job." — Secretary of State Jim Condos

"It has to be able to have enough resources to be able to do its job, it has to have the authority to do its job,” said Condos. “It has to be able to receive the complaint, investigate the complaint, maybe even have subpoena power to force people to testify and the ability to enforce."

Windham Sen. Jeannette White is the chairwoman of the Government Operations committee and is a co-sponsor of the bill. She supports the scaled-back approach, and says the commission can always be expanded in future years if circumstances warrant.

"We can keep a record of [what kind of cases we're dealing with] and then we'll know better what we should do in the future," said White.

Senate President Tim Ashe agrees with the limited approach because he says finding enough money for Condos' plan could be very difficult in a tough budget year.

"These funds will be competing, frankly, with health care programs nutrition programs and so on." — Senate President Tim Ashe

"Creating a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar mini-bureaucracy along what the Secretary of State has said, these funds will be competing, frankly, with health care programs nutrition programs and so on,” said Ashe. “So I'm a little nervous about some of the things that will fall off if we were to fund it at the level that the Secretary of State wants."

But Condos says the money is a small investment to bring trust back to government.

"What is the price of good government? What is the price of good ethical government? I think it's a small price to pay,” said Condos. “We need to improve upon and restore the public's trust in government, and this isn't going to happen by shortchanging its ability to actually perform its job."

There are a number of provisions yet to be decided as the Senate Government Operations committee reviews the legislation.

One is a policy known as "pay for play." It prohibits companies that bid on state contracts from making campaign contributions to state officials who review those contracts.

Another question is whether or not all candidates for statewide office should be required to release their tax returns.

The committee hopes to vote on the bill by the end of next week.