Ethics Commission report suggests lack of municipal oversight

Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 11:35 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A recent Vermont State Ethics Commission report reveals municipal oversight isn’t up to par.

The commission’s executive director, Christina Sivret, says roughly half the calls her office fields are about municipal concerns. Most calls are in regard to conflicts of interest and misuse of position, but there’s very little they can do to help other than provide guidance. Municipalities are not overseen by the Ethics Commission.

“The concerns we get are from people who call us are worried about accountability,” Sivret said. “If they feel like there isn’t accountability in their city or town, what’s the recourse? How do we address this?”

The Secretary of State’s Office fields similar complaints but also lacks the ability to intervene.

“It’s up to the municipalities to oversee themselves,” Deputy Secretary of State Lauren Hibbert said.

Hibbert says they have gotten an uptick of questions and complaints regarding municipalities in recent years. She attributes this to an increase in community participation in local politics, thanks to remote options. In 2022, the Secretary of State’s Office fielded 61 inquiries.

“We really refer people back to the town attorney or their select board to manage those issues,” Hibbert said.

To create more oversight, the Ethics Commission is recommending municipalities and local elected officials abide by the same code of ethics as the Legislature. Additionally, they hope to see guidance and training.

Ted Brady, the head of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, says the report overlooks the fact that many select board members, councilors and committee members are primarily part-time volunteers

“You can’t just tell a bunch of local volunteers to do something, or do you know what local volunteers do? They stop volunteering,” Brady said. “I think there’s a delicate balance we need to walk.”

Despite the fact VLTC does provide municipalities with resources like conflict of interest policies and legal help, there are still Vermonters who don’t think that’s enough.

“It does seem like there’s interest in starting conversation about municipal ethics and how to address municipal ethic issues this legislative session and next legislative session doing a deeper dive into actual solutions,” Sivret said.

The report also addresses ethics concerns in the Legislature, which operates with more oversight in regard to these matters.