Editor’s note: This commentary is by Catherine Rader, of East Montpelier, who is a member of the board of the League of Women Voters of Vermont.
The League of Women Voters has worked for good government for 98 years. We seek transparency, accountability and responsiveness in our public officials at every level. To that end, the League supported the establishment of an independent Ethics Commission for Vermont. The League spent a considerable amount of time over a three-year period attending Government Operations Committee sessions and testifying on S.8, the legislation that created the State Ethics Commission, eventually entitled Act 79.
The Vermont Constitution requires our elected officials to be open, transparent and accountable. The intent of the Constitution is to provide for free and open examination of records consistent with that goal. In his testimony on S.8 the secretary of state reminded us that government officials are trustees and servants of the people and it is the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.
The Ethics Commission is one tool to help ensure that our officials serve us. The Ethics Commission acts not only as a monitor, but also as a resource to define what is expected and to clarify any ambiguities that are sure to turn up in practice.
Act 79 provided three avenues of contact for any Vermonter to seek assistance from the State Ethics Commission on issues of governmental misconduct:
First, any Vermonter may file a complaint concerning the governmental misconduct of a public official. The complaint is kept confidential, in that it is not publicized.
Second, any public official or state employee may request confidential ethics guidance on an issue such as a conflict of interest in order to gain insight and knowledge on how to best address that ethical issue.
Third, any Vermont resident or organization may request an ethics advisory opinion, which is not confidential. It will be posted on the Ethics Commission website so as to be instructive to other public officials and state employees.
The State Ethics Commission opened its doors for business in January. In June, the commission put forth General Principles of Ethical Conduct which directly addressed conflicts of interest for public officials.
Because of our open and intimate Statehouse, and because in our small state we know our political leaders by their first names, it is easy to believe that Vermont is somehow immune to corruption. However, recent history has shown that Vermont can be home to political and economic scandal. As an independent state agency the members of the State Ethics Commission are performing the work they were charged to do.