Making Democracy Work

Testimony on S.8 Ethics Commission

Dottye Ricks testimony on Ethics Commission to the House Government Operations Committee

My name is Dottye Ricks. I am testifying as a member of the League of Women Voters of Vermont. I am sure that many of you know that For almost 100 years, the League, has worked hard to ensure good government, including accountability, transparency, and responsiveness in our public officials. To that end, the League has supported the establishment of a strong ethics commission.

We would support a bill that establishes an ethics commission much like the Human Rights Commission which is an example of an independent regulatory body that works.

  1. that provides an independent commission empowered to independently write the Ethics Code for the state + as the bill is, it is the fox guarding the hen house.
  2. that ensures, through the ethics code, impartiality, confidentiality, and integrity in state government
  3. that provides education and training on State ethics mandates
  4. that provides adequate funding and enforcement authority
  5. that provides Adequate staff and legal tools to conduct effective monitoring and investigation of ethics complaints and that provides a code that is comprehensive across state government even to the highest levels.

We do not believe that this bill, S.8, meets the requirements needed for a strong ethics commission. It is inadequate especially in the areas listed above and in financial disclosure, time on contributions, and time on lobbying limits, and especially when compared to many other state ethics commissions. New Jersey is an excellent example of a strong ethics commission (and I encouraged them to google it and read it.) And there is a real need for a strong commission.

We read in the newspapers or hear on the news of yet another person charged with embezzlement or some other ethical breach at the local and state levels and those are just the cases we know about. It happens more and more often and if it is happening at the local level, we would be na´ve to think it does not happen elsewhere in government and with more frequency. We have no knowledge of what exploitation occurs due to official position both during and after state service.

Vermont, as much as we would like to think so, is not immune to corruption or greed. How do we ensure that public officials act ethically in awarding contracts or hiring employees or that they provide adequate financial disclosure? We also want to see them protected from workplace aggression. And don't the hard working citizens of Vermont who pay steep taxes into the state coffers deserve an ethics bill that prevents corruption, nepotism, and financial gain at the expense of the public? A strong ethics bill can do this and YES we deserve it. In our opinion, the bill that is before you, as written, does not do that.

While I understand that it may be hard for you to buck your colleagues who, for whatever reason, don't want any ethics bill, much less a strong one, I encourage you to be courageous and rise above their objections. A strong ethics bill will harm no one except those with something to hide or gain from anonymity and will provide Vermonters with information needed to elect officials that demonstrate honesty, respectability, and integrity.

Because I am a teacher and I understand that one strategy to enhance learning and memory retention is through story telling, in closing, I offer you an analogy, an extended metaphor, if you will. While the circumstances may seem overly dramatic, the analogy is apt + it is the first thing I thought of when I first started reading about this bill. so I ask you to bear with me. I grew up in Louisiana and spent hours on levees in different parts of the state. As many others did, I sunbathed on them; I hiked on them or biked or jogged. I picnicked on them. They were magnificent structures and they gave all of us a sense of safety and security, they protected those on the other side + we knew without doubt that they would never fail. Yet in 2005 we watched as over 50 levees and sea walls in and around New Orleans collapsed. The failure of the levee system was a broken promise to the people of Louisiana. The promise was that the levees would hold back the flood waters. They didn't and When it was all over, the finding was that one of the reasons they failed was because of INADEQUATE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION. We all deserved better in Louisiana.

Metaphorically with this bill as it currently is written, we face a broken promise +that of an inadequately designed and constructed ethics bill that pays lip service to ethical government yet does really nothing to ensure that. An ineffectual commission such as this bill proposes will not serve the people of Vermont. We deserve better.

The League of Women Voters of Vermont, in our pursuit of good government, DOES NOT SUPPORT S.8 as it is currently written. This bill is like pouring sand at the levees to reinforce them. We don't want you to pour sand on the levee - we don't even want you to sandbag them. Give us a good solidly designed and constructed ethics bill with the components that we have ALL listed that holds our public servants accountable, responsible, and transparent and yes protects them, and that is worthy of the good citizens of Vermont.

Thank you.