Voltaire famously said, “Common sense is not so common.” This rings especially true for those who have spent years advocating for not just stronger language, but any real Vermont state code of ethics.
Session after session, legislators perform all manner of gymnastics to put off adopting the statutes that will, if nothing else, give Vermonters the faith and confidence that there is some mechanism of accountability for our government officials.
On July 10, the Vermont State Ethics Commission released the draft language for a state code of ethics, intended to be proposed to the Legislature this fall. It covers 14 core provisions, all related to the most basic concerns of government ethics.
While this may seem like a significant undertaking, it is remarkably straightforward.
A state code of ethics should not be thought of like a big hammer of justice, brought down to crush out all of the slightest improprieties. A state code of ethics, when done correctly, is an educational tool. It works to create clear-cut guidelines and inform those subject to its principles. It is a preventive measure and carries with it the parallel benefit of restoring faith in government.
A code of ethics sets the baseline for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for our public officials. Here are the most significant elements that the commission’s draft language attempts to accomplish:
• Define who is subject to a codified code of ethics. It’s exactly who you would think it would be — all elected and appointed state officials; all elected and appointed members of the General Assembly; all state employees; anyone appointed to serve on a state board or commission; and anyone else acting or speaking on behalf of the state of Vermont.
• Officially mandate that any public servant with a conflict of interest must disclose it. No, this is not required by statute.
• There is also no law saying that public servants cannot appoint someone to act on their behalf to their benefit when faced with a conflict of interest. The proposed language would fix this.
• “Public officials in the course of state business shall act impartially, showing no favor or prejudice against any person.” Forgive the glibness, but — duh? How is this not in statute yet?
• “Public officials shall not use their official positions for personal or financial gain.” Again, common sense. Again, not in statute.
• Clarify language in the current symbolic code of ethics around public servants not using confidential information for their own gain and not using non-public state resources for their personal benefit.
• Clarify language around gifts to public servants.
• Mandate ethics training for anyone starting a new public position.
None of this is earth-shattering. The most shocking part is that, unlike more than 40 other states, the state government has not accepted its responsibility to Vermonters and put these fundamental guidelines into statute.
It’s baffling that our Legislature has so much resistance to taking even the most cursory steps toward a modern and robust system of government accountability and transparency.
It is time for Vermont to adopt, by statute, a state code of ethics. Let’s prove Voltaire wrong, and bring common sense back to our policy decisions.
Eric LaMontagne is executive director of Campaign for Vermont.