On May 15, 2024
State News

Vt Legislature passes bill to create uniform ethical standards in local government

By Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

Vermont lawmakers have passed a bill that would create new uniform ethical standards for many local government officials — a change that proponents said is long overdue.

H.875 would establish a “municipal code of ethics” that’s similar to one for state officials that went into effect two years ago. The new code would apply to local officials such as Select Board members, clerks and planning commissioners, among others.

Specifically, the code would set baseline standards for cities, towns and villages to adopt around conflicts of interest, preferential treatment, gifts and other potential issues. Some municipalities already have robust ethics policies in place, lawmakers said, but others don’t — and the bill would create more consistency.

Other measures in H.875 would require county officers, such as sheriffs, to file financial disclosures both while campaigning for and holding office. The bill would also require state-level officials to disclose some additional information, such as stock holdings. 

Reporting the bill on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, said Vermont ranks in the bottom 10 states nationwide for the strength of its government ethics laws and is last among its New England neighbors. She said passage of H.875 would bump the state’s national rank up to 23rd.

“Members of the public that we heard from were very adamant, and very concerned, to make sure that we had a strong ethics code at the municipal level,” Hardy said, adding that the bill would help ensure communities “have accountability for local officials.”

In addition to creating a new ethics code, H.875 would authorize the Vermont State Ethics Commission to issue guidance to municipal officials on handling local ethics complaints.

Right now, the commission has no authority to even take on these complaints, said Christina Sivret, its executive director, in an interview Friday, May 10. She supported the bill.

Hardy told her colleagues that the ethics commission and the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office get more than 80 complaints a year alleging local ethics violations — more than the number of complaints they receive about state-level officials. 

Notably, though, H.875 would require municipalities — not the state commission — to investigate complaints lodged under the new local ethics code and develop possible remedies to them. That’s in part because the commission doesn’t have the resources to take on the additional work stemming from the local level, Sivret said.

The bill would also require municipalities to store records on those complaints and report back to the state commission, as well as require local leaders, such as city and town managers, to take occasional training on the new local ethics standards.

One key stakeholder — the Vermont League of Cities and Towns — has testified to lawmakers that the requirements in the bill would create too much of a burden on already slammed public servants. Ted Brady, the organization’s executive director, said he supported the spirit of the new ethics standards but believed the bill doesn’t give municipalities enough resources to enforce them.

“It’s a bunch of unfunded mandates,” Brady said May 10, adding that the bill “doesn’t give towns or cities any recourse to deal with unethical behavior.”

H.875 would also give the state commission new powers. For alleged violations under the existing code of ethics for state officials, the panel would be able to investigate cases, hold hearings and issue warnings and reprimands, according to the bill. The panel can now only issue advisory opinions regarding state officials’ conduct.

Another measure, meanwhile, would create penalties for candidates for state and county offices who are late in filing their financial disclosure forms. 

The new municipal code of ethics would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025, which Hardy said should give towns time to prepare for the new requirements. Some other provisions in the bill would go into effect later that year or in 2026.

Both the Senate and House agreed to a final version of the legislation on Friday. In the Senate, the vote was 18 to 10; in the House, it was 93 to 33.

For more information and the full text of the bill, visit: Legislature.Vermont.gov/bill/status/2024/H.875.

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