By BOB KINZEL
A proposal to create a Vermont Ethics Commission has been significantly scaled back at the Statehouse. But backers of the original plan still feel the stripped down approach is an important first step to help reduce conflicts of interest by public officials.
Vermont is one of the few states in the country that does not have a formal ethics commission.
The initial bill called for a fully staffed commission that would investigate potential cases of ethics violations. Windham Sen. Jeannette White, the chairperson of the Senate Government Operations committee, says the price tag for the commission was too high in a tough budget year.
“That Ethics Commission that was set up was going to cost $650,000,” says White. “We can’t do that.”
The scaled-back plan calls for an executive director who would work half-time. White says this person will not investigate allegations but can determine if a case should be forwarded to the Attorney General’s office for further review.
“So then we can see where are the issues that we think need more attention, maybe more education, around what are violations of a code of ethics,” said White.
Washington Sen. Anthony Pollina is the lead sponsor of the Senate bill. He says he’s disappointed that his proposal has been scaled back, but says the new version is still a good start.
“What we find is that there are more and more questions being raised about [the] behavior of public officials and potential conflicts of interest. So we’re not saying there’s a lot of corruption but we’re saying there are a lot of valid questions being asked.” — Washington Sen. Anthony Pollina
“This allows us to set up a process where a number of independent voices will come together to watchdog ethics violations that maybe have taken place so it’s not the ideal structure that we started out with but I think it’s a really good first step,” said Pollina.
And Pollina wants the final version of the bill to include a provision that would prohibit all lawmakers and members of the executive branch from taking a job in their field of service for a period of one year.
“What we find is that there are more and more questions being raised about [the] behavior of public officials and potential conflicts of interest,” says Pollina. “So we’re not saying there’s a lot of corruption but we’re saying there are a lot of valid questions being asked.”
Pollina says it’s also important that the bill prohibits elected officials from receiving gifts or donations from companies that do business with the state.
The full Senate could consider the legislation as early as next week.