Burlington College: Politics or Governance?

I’ve been watching the national effort to politicize Burlington College’s demise and am saddened by the venality of our politics and our dangerous ignorance of non-profit governance. It’s endemic in Vermont. Where too many of our major non-profits have limped through a decade or two of un-reviewed leadership performance, mission decay, and disconnection from constituents because their boards have no idea what the obligations and liabilities of board members are or even what board service means.

I won’t dwell on the details of Burlington College except to say that the entire fault lies with the Board. It can be said that Jane Sanders has a checkered history leading colleges, but all presidents serve at the will of their boards. It’s also been alleged that she tried to deceive the Board. But this doesn’t happen with a properly functioning board that verifies the bases for all major financial and academic decisions.

A president or executive director’s performance is meant to be reviewed annually by the board with input from constituents, administration, trustees, and community. Boards that don’t commit fully to this basic process own the errors of their chief executives.

Delivery on mission, ethical integrity, financial integrity, and leadership performance are the key responsibilities of a board. If a president threatens any of those objectives substantively, they must be adequately warned, then terminated.

Legally, excuses don’t cut it. Boards are responsible. Any board members taken by surprise at the sudden financial collapse of their institution have no one to blame but themselves. A board financial committee monitors financial viability ratios in real time, challenges significant changes in financial position, and must verify and approve every financial decision by the president that significantly alters the balance sheet.

​The oversight college-accrediting organization that does financial and academic monitoring, NEASC, would have known and warned the board well in advance of the college’s trajectory. Then it was up to the Board to either choose new leadership or arrange for an orderly shutdown. Either would have been preferable to sitting by and watching it collapse.

Sadly, politicians are trying to make this a political issue rather than what it is – a complete failure of governance. Our vigorous non-profits harness the commitment and energy of Vermonters to improve our lives. Their boards must rise to the challenge of good governance and preserve and protect this vital community energy.

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Stay the Course in Vermont Healthcare

How quickly we forget. Just short of four decades ago, Vermont policymakers decided that a competitive healthcare system had not lowered healthcare costs, but was, in fact, driving costs up, as hospitals vied for more expensive technology and market share. The relationship between our thirteen community hospitals and our tertiary-care hospitals – then Fletcher Allen and Dartmouth – were tortured and riddled with expense.

We decided that a citizen-regulated monopoly would better constrain costs, regulating towards a more cost – efficient and accessible network of integrated healthcare facilities, spanning sole practitioners, community clinics, community and tertiary care hospitals. And it worked. Looking at measures of access, prevention and treatment, avoidable hospital use, costs, healthy lives and equity, the Commonwealth Fund recently ranked Vermont’s health system as the highest-performing in the country.

Governor Scott understands and supports this vision for Vermonters’ healthcare, while we now hear our progressive democratic legislative leaders railing against monopoly and championing competition as the factor that will control costs. But we already crossed that bridge many years ago, so I find it especially ironic that this rhetoric reflects current attitudes in Washington, as Republicans work to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and eliminate important protections, like those Vermont enacted thirty years ago. Vermont’s direction has been one of collaboration, not competition, and has prioritized policies that benefit all those over ones that might benefit only some.

We’re one of the last “civilized” countries in the world not to regard healthcare as a basic human right, even as Vermont has worked within its scarce means and small scale to create a healthcare system that could “act as if.” We’ve made great strides, including having among the fewest uninsured residents while being among the highest-quality, lowest-cost states in the nation.

We must stay the course – while admitting that having said that, affordability is as much an issue here as it is elsewhere in the country, and we need strong regulatory oversight to ensure continued progress on constraining costs.

But if we believe that healthcare-for-all should be a right, then we must also acknowledge that “free-market”competition in health care conflicts with the collaborative, integrated system we’re developing to provide access to quality healthcare for all Vermonters.

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On suicide, and what it tells us about our social and economic policies

Society is ill-served by our narrow definition of suicide. Suicide is more widespread than our definition would like to admit – “the act of an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.” This definition is confined to self-inflicted, real-time incidents, counting only those who summarily end their own lives and understates reality, allowing us to overlook the human toll the world we’ve created socially, economically, medically, educationally, and environmentally takes on many of our citizens. It also understates the recently reported escalation in suicides, notably among middle-age women. From 2000 to today, the reported suicide rate has risen 25%. If we understood and defined suicide for what it is, the escalation would be significantly higher.

Those contemplating suicide face daunting questions. Will I have the courage? How do I do it? How can it be painless and instantaneous? How do I protect my loved ones from the aftermath or my death or from guilt? Suicides generally want to spare their family the sight of suicide’s aftermath.

The decision that life is no longer worth living can be the result of clinical depression or it can be understood as a direct reflection and harsh judgment on the communities we create as human beings… the sexually abused child who turns to drugs or gorges herself on food to make herself less sexually attractive to predators, one suffering from mental health issues with no access to healthcare, the laid-off worker left behind by automation or job-migration with no understanding of how to begin again, the impulsive teenager who succumbs to peer pressure or over-prescription by his dentist or doctor and becomes addicted to opiates until he can no longer afford them and moves to heroin or fentanyl.

These slow-moving suicides-by-lifestyle are equally decisive suicides but are not counted, as they often reframe the would-be suicide as a victim rather than a self-aggressor. Suicide-by-addiction is a powerful example. At what point does someone addicted to any substance – drugs, food, alcohol, tobacco, danger / adrenaline – abandon hope of recovery and embrace the fatal outcome?

Nor do suicides-by-consignment such as death-by-cop, death-by-car, death-by-suicide-bomb make the statistics, as these events consign the execution to others. These suicides decide to end their lives but leave it to another to complete the job with the same result… the driver who swerves in front of a semi, the person who draws a gun on a policeman, the kid with no vision for any future who dons an explosive vest in the hope of being remembered as a martyr.

Much has been written about suicide-by-lifestyle without naming it as such. Our shift to outcomes-based compensation in health care will need to account for those who have given up on self-care and decided to tacitly commit suicide with drugs, food, or liquor until their lifestyle achieves their goal. These are the suicides we are reluctant to count.

We are ill-served by our limited understanding and definition of suicide, as it is a critical metric of community well-being. Religions and governments have long condemned suicide. Catholicism considers it a mortal sin and until recently it has been a crime in the U.S. In modern times, the Church has softened its stance on consignment to hell, denial of last rites and burial in consecrated ground, acknowledging humankind’s inability to fairly judge the psychic pain or mental illness that leads one to suicide.

Nor is suicide a federal crime any more, parsed legally now into self-inflicted suicide, medically assisted suicide, and euthanasia, the last of which is illegal in all states. Medically assisted suicide or “death with dignity” is provisionally legal in California, Vermont, Washington and Oregon. Suicide, as we have understood it, is no longer prosecuted…irony abounds.

But in general, our culture still disapproves of suicide, regardless of what life would be like for the individual. Experts agree that medical heroics at the beginning and end of life account for half of all healthcare costs. The advent of advance directives is changing this culture for the better and offering people more end-of-life choices.

While our moralistic view of suicide has changed over the years, if not our tracking of it, suicide is the daily choice of many including the famous, such as Graham Greene, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Hemingway. Modern philosophical and artistic works have tried to remove the stigma of suicide, if not justify it as a personal choice. The writer Arthur Koestler and his wife who committed suicide together come to mind.

We understand suicide as a personal decision made for private reasons. What we are less understanding about reluctant to admit is that it is also a reflection of the communities we create.

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Puccini in Middlebury

From as early as I can remember, I’ve been an opera buff. I remember sitting in the orchestra section at the Old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th and Broadway and hearing the great mid-century singers. My great-grandmother Selma was having a platonic affair with Caruso. My Aunt Rose hung out with the greats of the time: Gueden, Schwarzkopf, Kunz, and Jerome Hines. My fervid childish imagination lit up at the live passion, violence, and madness on stage that made the comics littering Al Melendy’s barbershop in Morrisville seem pale by comparison.

One afternoon after seeing an Aida with my grandmother, the head of the Opera Guild, the fan club for the well-heeled, ushered us backstage to meet the diva, Galina Vishnevskaya. But she was besieged by voluble, bearded men from the Russian embassy bearing flowers and champagne. On the way back across the stage, a crew was erecting a cottage set for that night’s opening of Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring the debut of an unknown Australian named Joan Sutherland. Our host asked if we might like to come, as she had two extra house seats. My grandmother, allowing that one opera a day was adequate, declined for me. The following week, Sutherland as Lucia made the cover of Life magazine.

We still see occasional performances at the new Met but airfare, a hotel, a few meals, and opera tickets are now about the price of a raised-ranch in Hanksville.

So when friends urged us to see the Middlebury Opera Company, lauding their productions, orchestra, and voices, I was resistant – doubting that Middlebury could mount a world-class opera. But my wise wife bought tickets and we recently saw Puccini’s Il Trittico, a trio of short operas. We’re still discussing the high caliber of the singers, production, and orchestra.

Their production of the comic opera Gianni Schicchi is a riotous send-up for our times. And while I won’t attempt a review, I can say I thought the performance – drawing on both local and national professionals – was about as good as live opera can get.

So, it’s provincial to imagine that only big cities can produce great opera. Vermont’s small towns used to be rife with opera houses and companies. Now, thanks to Middlebury and other regional companies like Opera North, live opera has returned to the green mountains.

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When reverence for our past blinds us to our future….

I love Vermont. I’ve lived here seventy years, and like my father, I’ve turned down opportunities to move away and earn more money. But I don’t trust the Vermont myth of ‘exceptionalism.’

We’re a microcosm of the world around us. Our communities and our natural, working, and built environments make us a wonderful place to live, but I worry that our tendency toward self-adulation calcifies belief systems that often impede our progress. Change happens whether we like it or not and it’s critical to understand and accommodate it without compromising our values. To ignore change puts our future at risk.

I love a well-framed barn, in fact, my first home was one. I love and use hand-made tools. But I try not to let my reverence for the past obscure my vision of the future.

Personally, I prefer small communities and local democracy, but driving through rural Vermont and seeing the hollowed-out towns and villages I knew as thriving centers of social and economic vitality when I was young challenges the ideal of local control. Small is beautiful, except when its windows are boarded up with plywood.

E-commerce, urbanization, and the industrialization of our food supply have exported wealth, gutting too many of our communities. Many of the old “tools” in our economic development toolbox are rusty relics.

So, to understand and confront change, we must re-imagine our communities and the institutions and commerce that feed them. When employment in the non-profit government, healthcare, and educational sectors outstrips employment in local businesses, we must rethink unregulated, free-market capitalism as a pathway to personal and community financial independence. Global economic, environmental, transportation, and communications systems ignore state lines. The boundaries on our maps now mean little beyond the law, politics, and taxation.

Finally, we may all be good people, but we each have the potential to do bad things. That’s the human condition. And the good-ol’-boy network that prefers back-room governance, winks, nods, and deals is a destructive anachronism. We must adhere to transparent and representative governance, and evolve and enforce ethical guidelines that oversee our decisions and policy-making.

We can love and preserve those aspects of our past that retain their beauty and utility, but not to re-examine frankly and honestly what has worked and what may now be failing puts us at risk. The Times They Are a Changin’ and so must we.

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Memorial Day 2017

My father died in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines on December 3, 1944, when the ship on which he was serving as a Naval lieutenant was hit by a Japanese torpedo and sank in under a minute. 168 were rescued when they swam to a nearby island and 191 were lost.

I never knew my father. I was born four months later in New York City to a war widow in mourning, who shortly after my birth, moved with me to Morrisville, Vermont. Several years later she married a handsome French-Canadian ski instructor named Emile Rene Couture, and so I grew up in a small catholic community as Bill Couture.

When I turned eighteen, the man I knew as “Dad” took me to Hyde Park to apply for my draft card. For us kids, getting a draft card was a critical right-of-passage like getting a hunting or driver’s license. We would open our wallets and compare the contents, showing our draft card off with pride.

When mine came several weeks later, I tore open the Selective Service envelope with anticipation. But I noticed a difference. Mine said “Four-A” instead of “One-A.” I asked Dad why I wasn’t “One-A” like my friends. He explained, “you’re the sole son of a veteran killed in action.” I was distraught. Far from caring that my father had died a hero’s death, I focused on the fact that I differed from my friends and didn’t qualify for immediate call-up should war break out and so avoided all questions from my friends about my draft card.

Five years later, during the Vietnam draft, I was at UVM, married with two sons, and working a night shift at IBM, and my feelings were different.

The only trace I have of my father today was a book of his letters home from the war published posthumously. As a boy and young man, I tried many times to read the collection but something felt wrong and I would put the book down.

I was in my early forties before I could make it through the book. What I came to understand was that the voice in the letters was the voice of a young man both committed to his country and terrified and confused about his role in the war. Earlier, when I’d tried to read the book I needed and expected the paternal voice of a mature father when, in fact, my father was no older than I was when I first tried to read his letters.

I never served in the military as it turned out and so, since the age of twenty-five, chose to serve in public service, chairing or serving on some twelve boards from Fletcher Allen to several Vermont cultural non-profits. I currently serve on three.

I believe public service is vital to our survival as a country and has a critical role in the maturing of young people. For some time, I’ve advocated a compulsory national service that would require every young person living in America to give one or two years of their youth to their country, be it in the military, social services, or the national parks.

Too few young Americans today have any knowledge of civics, history, or their own roles and responsibilities in a successful democracy, nor have they had the maturing experience of having to do something for their country simply because it needs to be done.

I know most of you here have and it has shaped who you are today. Our young people would benefit, as we have, by the tempering experience of serving our country. I believe a national service would help our young people focus outside themselves and better understand their role in the country we love.

Thank you for joining me in remembering my father’s sacrifice and those of countless others and for asking me to join you today.

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A Nation of Cranks?

We’ve become a nation of divided cranks. Too many of my friends have made up their mind about everything, dug in their heels, and either turned their face to the wall, as they say in hospice, or steeled themselves to fighting for their entrenched opinions.

If only we lived in a simple binary world of absolutes instead of in the complicated, nuanced world where some things can be true and false at the same time. We wouldn’t need all this troublesome education, reading, art, science, and conversation. We could just eat, drink, watch television, and give those who disagree with us the digital digit.

Friends send me anti-vax, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-religion, anti-wind, anti-hunting, anti-single-payer memes… the list is endless and covers the entire political spectrum. The only consistency is “anti.” But each of these “antis” is, in fact, a complex and nuanced subject, requiring application of reason, science, human story, and civil debate.

We’ve become too comfortable and lazy. Everything’s become a “pro – anti” binary stalemate and so our democracy grinds to a halt.

Colonialism and the flight of oppressed and starving populations have diversified and complicated our world. This was how our own country was founded. Traditional communities still had to reconcile diverse opinions but had the shared benefit of intimate community contact and a shared need for survival that required debate and solutions.

The digital world has wrought many benefits to science, education, business, and communication, but its impact on community has been less beneficial. We’ve ceded personal contact and the rough-and-tumble of debate to remote name-calling, ideological safe spaces, and anti – messaging that invites no rebuttal or debate and reinforces our own righteous ignorance.

But when we stop talking to one another, we stop learning. When we choose our news based on our politics, we learn nothing new. When we create emotionally safe spaces in our schools and colleges, our children stop learning. When we take opiates, our bodies die. When we merely entertain ourselves, our spirits die.

I lay this withered wreath not on the tomb of any political party but on our democracy at large. We are all guilty of intellectual laziness.

We should each find someone with whom we disagree and talk with them and listen to them. Whether they change our mind or re-enforce our own opinions, at least those opinions will be informed by debate.


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Creative Invention: Plan for the future, learn from the past

Many small colleges are struggling with low inquiry, application, and admission rates, including here in the Northeast. Rising tuitions, student loan abuses, and radical change in employment patterns have discouraged many students who then choose to bypass college and just enter the workforce at a lower level of opportunity.

Now combine that thought with the fact that Vermont spends twice as much storing our social and economic fallout in jail as it does supporting its six state colleges. The chancellor and Board have begun a process to merge Johnson and Lyndon to save administrative overhead, but this is structural, and much more could be done to prepare both campuses for the new age we’re entering.

It’s widely accepted that prevention is cheaper and more effective than cure, so what if we took some of the hundred and eighty-million dollars Vermont spends on corrections and invested it in Northern Vermont University to address and ultimately lower the cost of remediating some of our past social and economic investment failures.

Imagine adding a focused diversion curriculum offering a pathway back into society and the changing economy for young offenders that meets them where they are, as well as one for released non-violent offenders. More than half of our prisoners are either past their release date or detainees awaiting trial. Each male prisoner costs fifty-thousand dollars annually and each woman, ninety-thousand, not even counting the cost of caring for their six thousand children. Compare that to the average state college tuition of fifteen-thousand.

Imagine, too, a curriculum that welcomes immigrants and refugees into Vermont’s shrinking population and anxious business community by setting up a specialized curriculum that teaches our language and culture, and provides basic employment skills as well as the fundamentals of civics, American history, and science – all designed by their future professors, employers, and resettlement professionals.

During our lifetime, technical innovation and change has outstripped our evolutionary human capacity to keep pace and, as much as we may turn to the past for comfort, we ignore the future at our peril. We understand a lot about coming change and where it may lead but we can’t effectively prepare for it with endless incremental patches. We need to project, imagine, reinvent, and act on what we foresee. Our state college system would be a good place to start.

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To Hell in a Man-basket?

Growing up in the transition from Vermont’s “Republican century” to the Democratic “sixties,” the political labels we used seemed meaningless in the many discussions I had with people of differing political ideals. I usually found commonsense and decency in their differing perspectives.

The social compression of Vermont’s small towns, both in daily life and annually at town meeting, didn’t inhibit diversity of opinion on any topic. But the fact that we depended on one another in hard times, attended the same churches, traded in the same stores, and buried our dead in the same cemeteries meant we generally spoke civilly to one another, considered opposing opinions, and often found common ground.

I don’t know whether it’s the inherent distance of digital communication, a general decline in life’s imposed exigencies, our obsession with “things” over values, or whether we’re just Amusing Ourselves to Death as Neil Postman wrote in 1985, but the loss of civil engagement that has paralyzed Congress for years has apparently now spread to the White House – though for now at least, the Supreme Court still seems to be capable of occasionally rendering coherent decisions.

But setting politics and ideologies aside, I find myself increasingly wondering what to do when leadership at the top falters.

Once the hope of the world, we’re fast becoming a disappointing puzzle to many and a source of fear to others. The very values that made us a beacon are under attack and growing dimmer.

There’s increasing concern that inexperience and confusion in the White House are doing irreversible harm and polls show that many voters who believed campaign promises to “make America great again” are also having doubts, as they see their own interests being tabled. This president and his closest advisors dictate, but appear incompetent to govern themselves, let alone our country. Even those who aspire to wealth or power from their proximity to this president are showing signs of anxiety. The process of impeachment is again being mentioned – impeachable offences usually being described as treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. But only two presidents in U.S. history have been impeached and both were acquitted.

So my question today is… where to draw the line, who should do the drawing – and how much longer we can afford to wait.

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Ethics Meltdown in Legislature

The Legislature is at an impasse trying to decide whether to establish and adequately fund a statewide ethics commission that has real enforcement capability. There’s been considerable favorable testimony by Vermonters, ethicists and our secretary of state, Jim Condos, who has been a relentless champion of government transparency, inclusion and establishing such a commission. Each time VTDigger runs a story on ethics legislative testimony or ethical lapses by state officials, comments from Vermonters run almost universally in favor of establishing such a commission.

Legislative arguments against it are unconvincing:

  • In this year of budget constraints, we can’t afford another government bureaucracy ($330,000 of $3.5 billion); (less than 1/100th of a percent)
  • Financial disclosure of possible conflicts will discourage Vermonters from government service;
  • We’re all good people and we all know each other;
  • What if an ethics commission ran amok and looked for self-serving behavior where there was none?
  • An ethics commission would not have prevented any of the recent malfeasance, etc.

Vermont is one of only three states with no central ethics infrastructure. The Center for Public Integrity, in partnership with Global Integrity, has conducted a comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency. The project uses extensive research by reporters in each state to grade and rank the states based on existing laws and analysis of how well they are implemented. This is a carefully researched report with a comprehensive explanation of each of 13 categories.

In 2015 (from data gathered in 2013 and 2014), Vermont got an overall grade of D-:

  1. Public Access to Information F
    2. Political Financing B
    3. Electoral Oversight D-
    4. Executive Accountability F
    5. Legislative Accountability F
    6. Judicial Accountability F
    7. State Budget Processes A
    8. State Civil Service Management F
    9. Procurement C-
    10. Internal Auditing C-
    11. Lobbying Disclosure C-
    12. Ethics Enforcement Agencies F
    13. State Pension Fund Management D

Vermont ranks 50th of all states on the Ethics Enforcement Agencies category.

For the third time in six years, Vermont has been named No. 1 in America … as the riskiest state for major embezzlements. And Vermont has some of the shorter prison sentences for those caught dipping into the till, according to the latest annual report by Marquet International. A six-year snapshot shows Vermont is the most likely to lead the list for embezzlements among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

While we are mostly good people, we’re also fallible. We’ve seen a spate of recent embezzlements in the municipal sector. We’ve seen government officials pirouette from their office to earn more, working for those they oversaw. The alleged McAllister scandal trudges toward trial, the EB-5 Jay Peak scandal is the largest in our 225-year history and one of the largest in the SEC’s own history.

A few examples in the executive, legislative and municipal arenas:

  • Coventry: $876,000 missing.
    • Hardwick Electric: The largest municipal embezzlement in Vermont history, more than $1.6 million.
    • Vernon: recent allegations and state police investigation.
    • Former Sen. Norm McAllister sexual allegations.
    • Jay Peak EB-5 scandals.
    • Brent Raymond, Vermont’s EB-5 director resigns and takes a job with Mount Snow, where he will manage two EB-5 immigrant investor funded projects.
    • Becky Fu, the manager of international trade and investment for the state and a former member of the Vermont regional center staff, left to take a job with Trapp Family Lodge, which is a recipient of EB-5 immigrant investor funds. The Von Trapp family has sought $22 million in EB-5 funds.
    • Alex MacLean’s leap from Shumlin aide to Jay Peak employee in a matter of days would have been prevented were there an ethical code in place and an adequate enforcement arm.
    • Executive branch efforts to impede the press’ FOIA requests for emails about MacLean’s transition might have been appealed to an ethics commission for review. VTDigger’s lawsuit to obtain public records, supported by the ACLU-VT, might not have occurred.
    • SenDick Mazza’s failure to report rental income.
    • Possible unaudited expense accounting fraud.

As a commentator who has addressed ethical issues in prior VPR and press commentaries, I was asked to testify in Senate Government Operations and was challenged as to how an ethics commission could have prevented the $200 million EB-5 fraud perpetrated on 836 investors from 74 countries. Had we had a real ethics commission, the immigration lawyer working on behalf of suspicious investors in 2014 would have had a place to go to ask for help. At first, the state denied any responsibility and the scandal metastasized. Two governors, a senator and an agency secretary might have been warned not to represent that the investors’ funds were being audited appropriately by the state agency that was, at that time, also charged with promoting the program. The following year, the state learned that the SEC was waist-deep into an examination of massive fraud.

The “moi?” response when elected and appointed Vermont officials are deemed tainted by this scandal that took an SEC investigation to uproot is an embarrassment. At the least, an ethics commission would have been a point of entry for those with questions about oversight.

An effective ethics commission backed by an ethics canon is foremost a metaphorical conscience, secondly a practical resource for those elected to serve Vermonters, providing leaders with clarity on acceptable behavior, and, lastly, it is an enforcer of its guidelines, adjudicating the difference between public service and self-dealing. Like most preventive actions, it would pay for itself many times over. Can we honestly say that in the myriad state contracts and employee expense vouchers there is no self-dealing? The cost of defending or remediating ethical lapses certainly exceeds the cost of an effective ethics commission.

Legislative waffling on establishing ethical guidelines and a body to interpret and enforce them is, in itself, suspect. People, businesses and institutions all have laws and precepts they must follow. It should be no different in a citizen legislature where the people’s business is conducted. We’re not special. We’re imperfect beings, trying to make our way in a complex and challenging world. We need guide posts.

Although most Vermonters favor establishment of an ethics commission with investigative and enforcement powers, the current bill (S.8) largely ignores what Vermonters are asking for, doing little more than providing legislative cover for inaction. It calls only for a part-time director and someone in human resources to draft ethical guidelines. There’s no enforcement capacity. Malfeasance is referred to the Senate or the House for peer action, even though our elected leaders have not fared all that well historically in policing themselves.

A real ethics commission should not cost more than $350,000, a small price to pay to assure Vermonters that their elected officials are serving them and not themselves. It must have jurisdiction over the Legislature and executive branches as well as elected municipal officials. It should have investigative and prosecutorial authority, referring criminal matters to the state Attorney General’s Office.

In a time of widespread citizen mistrust of their government institutions, what could be more important than re-establishing that trust? Trust in American institutions is eroding. The approval rating for our highest legislative body is under 18 percent. Our highest judicial body has wrought havoc with the democratic electoral process. The projected budget for an election 18 months away is estimated at five plus billion dollars, or what the Legislature is planning to pass for Vermont’s 2018 budget.

We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Statutes, regulations and governance conventions codify the continuum of Americans’ ethical beliefs and guide our decisions as we work to maintain civility. When things fall apart, it’s usually due to arrogant abuse of power or the naive “gee-whiz, we’re all honest” mindset – which is uncomfortably close to willful ignorance. The former was exemplified at the outbreak of the EB-5 scandal, which we still pretend didn’t happen.


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