“See No Evil” at the Statehouse

I find it fascinating how disinterested to downright hostile many lawmakers appear to be with regard to Sec. of State Jim Condos‘ call for formation of an independent Ethics Commission.

Over and over the arguments seem to be that there “ain’t no problem here,” and we’ve got better places to spend the money.

To the former I simply drop my jaw in disbelief. I can’t speak for the entire state, but we certainly do have a problem here in Franklin County.

I am one of those Vermonters who has repeatedly rung-up the Secretary’s office over the years, pleading for help with an open meeting violation one month and conflicts of interest the next.

I’ve been giving him a break lately as I have finally learned the lesson that there is absolutely nothing that his office can do to enforce the purely symbolic rules of ethical behavior governing  public officials in Vermont.

It must be extremely frustrating to hear, day after day, from Vermonters distressed over bad behaviors in government, knowing that all you have to offer is a sympathetic ear.

I find the funding arguments against formation of an Ethics Commission particularly ironic since it isn’t difficult to imagine that conflicts of interest within government are routinely resulting in questionable payouts to contractors, avoidable lawsuits and general disregard for inefficiencies.  

I applaud Jim Condos for making this his mission.  He wants to be an effective Secretary of State, not merely a functional one.

Serving as a Democratic Secretary of State in an overwhelmingly Democratic administration, with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, the simplest thing would be to just go with the flow; but that isn’t good enough for Condos.  

What he proposes is really in the best interests of everyone, but especially the Democratic party, whose collective teeth have been set to grinding by his latest search in the lamplight for a government we can all trust.

The problem with overwhelming majorities, even when they are comprised of our own allies, is that, in the ease of opportunity they provide for one party, it isn’t always the best people who rise to the top.

Any career politician can too easily succumb to temptation in that opportunistic land of plenty, sometimes without even realizing that that is what they are doing.  Lacking any real competition, it’s too easy to rationalize the choice that favors one’s own interests as the best option for the greater good.

Right now, it’s easy to look at Republicans as the more ethically (and factually) challenged party, but a lack of vigilance and sufficient checks and balances could well bring the entire Democratic party in Vermont into ill repute, vis-a-vis the public trust.

So, suck-it-up statehouse denizens!  Those of us who labor in the trenches of grassroots advocacy, the natural allies of the Democratic party, are getting tired of hearing that there is nothing that can be done when close relatives in high places make a mockery of the permit process, or when open meetings are suddenly closed.  

We even take umbrage when, despite conspicuous wrong-doing, an office holder enjoys more privilege of choice than do the voters he was elected to represent.

Self-policing by the legislature does not appear to be working; and anyone who doesn’t see that we have a problem wouldn’t make much of a policeman in any case.  The fact that we are the only state without an Ethics Commission does not mean we don’t have a problem.

It only suggests that Vermonters  favor “See No Evil” as our operating model for problem solving in this area, and that’s nothing of which we should be proud.

I know the Ethics Commission can’t eliminate all the monkey business that goes on behind closed doors, but at least it would be a healthy place to start.

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

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