State Sen. Jeanette White (D-Stockholm Syndrome) penned an opinion column in the Brattleboro Observer last week concerning the Senate’s timid, occasional, mincing steps toward some kind of ethics commission. We’ll get to the self-serving (and self-pitying) rhetoric in a moment; but first, she shared a detail about the proposed State Ethics Commission that I hadn’t seen before.
The duties of the commission/director will be to give advisory opinions on question of potential ethical issues to anyone who requests. These will be kept confidential.
Throughout the Senate’s deliberations about an Ethics Commission, and an internal Ethics Panel to allow the Senate to police itself, “confidentiality” has been Priority One. Complaints filed to the Ethics Panel will be confidential; its hearings will be confidential; its collected evidence will be perpetually confidential except for material included in the Panel’s official report to the Senate.
And now, the Ethics Commission will apparently inhabit the same dark reaches, far from the prying eyes of The People.
After all, we’d hate for a sitting Senator to be embarrassed or inconvenienced by an ethics inquiry, wouldn’t we? I mean, that’s obviously far more important than transparency or earning the public’s trust.
The rest of White’s published whinge plows the usual tired ground, starting from the very first sentence.
The issue of ethics and the lack of an ethics commission has been of great interest over the last year or so to the media. How many Vermonters are passionate about the issue is not clear…
Once again, this whole mess is the media’s fault. We’ve got nothing better to do than flog distinguished lawmakers on the issue, meanly reminding them of the parade of ethical questions raised in recent years and marveling at the complete lack of oversight or enforcement. As for that second sentence, I’m sure that her friends and supporters are filling her ears with reassurance.
Just like Norm McAllister’s friends and supporters.
White moves on to the Judiciary Committee’s decision to slash the Ethics Commission from a $600,000 annual budget to a mere $50,000, with one part-time staffer and five volunteer Commissioners. She blames that on tough budget times, which I would find believable except when various legislative committees are burning hundreds of thousands of dollars on “studies” that no one will ever read.
And then she introduces a new argument: Ethics Commissions don’t work. Not by her standards, anyway.
We looked at many other states and their commissions and whether they actually decreased any unethical actions. New Jersey was used as a model by one proponent; Rhode Island has one; and Florida has one — we did not see that any of them had necessarily changed behaviors.
Okay. I guess I have to explain this. The purpose of any law or commission or security guard is not to “change behaviors” — it’s to detect those who misbehave. New Jersey’s Ethics Commission isn’t going to drain the political swampland of that state’s politics, but it does stand a chance of catching miscreants and punishing them. White’s argument deliberately misses the point.
Near the end of her piece, she does write one sentence I actually agree with.
This certainly does not go far enough for those who feel we have something to hide, that we are not facing the issue and that we are only policing ourselves.
You’re right there, Senator. It doesn’t go far enough. I do feel you’ve got something to hide, you’re not facing the issue, and it’s inarguable that you’re only policing yourselves.
Fortunately, Vermont’s system is relatively free of ethical taint. But “the horse is still in the barn” is NOT an argument against locking the door. A strong, transparent, accessible Ethics Commission would help ensure that we don’t stumble our way into future scandals. It would enhance public trust in the system. And even at $600,000 a year, it’s a small investment in good government.
But what do I know. I’m just a member of the ethics-obsessed media.
A Small Price to Pay !
One tenth of one percent of the annual state budget seems like a reasonable investment in government integrity and transparency !
Whoops, make that one one-hundredth of one percent !
There’s a huge difference between “advisory opinions on question of potential ethical issues” being kept confidential and actual ethics COMPLAINTS being kept confidential.
The former can be used by legislators and other officials to help them decide what course to take, and may be about actions that have not yet been taken and ones that, after hearing the opinion, won’t be taken.
Fair enough. I just hate the whole notion of “confidentiality” that permeates the Senate’s debate on ethics reform.