Over the past several years, Campaign for Vermont has worked with the legislature and the Ethics Commission to develop a Code of Ethics that would apply to all three branches of Government. As such, S.171 is currently being discussed in Senate Government Operations and is the product of several years of research and debate. But, lately the bill has hit a critical juncture in its development.
All three branches have their own codes of conduct, so the question being asked is why does ‘the state’ need its own universal Code of Ethics. S.171 is intended to establish a baseline for the conduct that Vermonters can expect from their public officials, regardless of which branch they serve in. This does not preclude any one branch, agency, or department from having more stringent rules. For example, the Judiciary has a very comprehensive set of rules and would be stronger than the statewide Code of Ethics and currently envisioned, thus would take precedence.
Vermont is one of a handful of states that does not have a Code of Ethics. The benefit of this bill is not only that ethics expectations are clearly spelled out for all concerned but gives support to the Ethics Commission, which is an impartial Commission that can review complaints and offer guidance about the conduct of a public official (CFV was instrumental in the creation of this Commission in 2017). The relevant branches’ code of conduct would take precedence if, like with Federal laws, it is more stringent than the State’s basic code.
In recent days, members of the Committee and of state government have raised several concerns about the bill which are still pending, which we believe can be addressed through drafting changes. However, these ‘what if’ scenarios threaten to derail the bill and in many cases are already addressed in the legislation. It is important to note that nothing in the bill will interfere with a legislators’ ability to perform their core functions or public official’s ability to process normal clerical or ministerial functions. The bill would simply ask public officials to refrain from decision-making activity where they may have a conflict of interest and requires a written explanation if they choose to proceed regardless of the potential conflict.
It is hard to imagine that any of the three branches would exempt themselves from a code of ethics, that but appears to be what they are trying to do. Members of the judiciary and the legislature believe that such a code should not apply to them or that they should have their own code of ethics. We disagree. There have been years of work put into this bill. It is clear, concise and to the point: this gives everyone the baseline knowledge and ability for understanding ethics rules or a breach thereof and also the ability to understand the consequences of their decisions or actions. As some have said ‘you will know it when you see it’. It provides a clear path forward if someone believes they may have a conflict of interest.
Please join us is asking the Legislature to pass a universal Code of Ethics that applies to all three branches of State Government and provides Vermonters a confidential place to bring their issues and concerns, please call the State House’s Sergeant-at-Arms office at 802-828-2228 and ask that your message be given to the Senate Government Operations Committee or send them an email. (if you use Microsoft Outlook, click here instead)
Thank you for your support of this important issue. Too much time and effort has been expended to see this bill go stagnant.
President, Campaign for Vermont
Secretary, Campaign for Vermont