New Ethics Committee rules seek to broaden closed-door discussions

By MADELINE HUGHES

The Shelburne Ethics Committee is working to revise its rules and procedures to follow the new ordinance approved by the Selectboard last month.

The updated ordinance is shorter than the previous version and it expands the committee’s educational role in town.

“It’s designed to be clearer and more concise, so people can read and understand it,” committee chair Lee Suskin explained.

The committee is also tasked with educating public officials and residents on what constitutes ethical behavior in town.

“If public officials and residents know what is expected, and know how to file a complaint, there is incentive for officials to do what’s expected,” Suskin said. “I hope for good behavior and no complaints.”

The ordinance expands on what constitutes a financial conflict of interest while taking out language and expands the list of sanctions that the Ethics Committee can impose upon a public official.

“It makes it easier for us to do the right thing, because not every violation deserves the same sanction,” Suskin said.

In aiming to make the ordinance more user-friendly, the updated version has changed some of the terms used. Instead of the committee finding “probable cause” of a conflict of interest when they review a complaint, the committee now will determine if there is “reasonable likelihood” of a conflict of interest.

The committee met at an open meeting on Dec. 27 to finalize its draft of the updated rules and procedures that also reflect this language change. The new rules also expand on the steps the committee would take when a complaint arises.

The new rules lay out specifically how the Ethics Committee may deliberate on complaints in closed session before issuing a written decision.

“The Committee may meeting in closed, deliberative sessions in person, telephonically, and/or electronically from time to time after its investigation without public notice,” the latest draft of the rules state.

The issue of how the committee announces its decisions was questioned after it deliberated on a new complaint received in December. On Dec. 18, the committee met in closed session to determine how to handle the complaint. The committee declined to discuss its decision until it was written, essentially continuing its deliberative session after the committee adjourned.

When other complaints have been filed, the committee has explained its actions in three different ways: not commenting until writing a decision, voting on the decision in open meeting, and stating its decision in the open part of its meeting.

The Shelburne News pointed out these inconsistencies at the Dec. 27 meeting.“In the interest of transparency and consistency, we want to try to understand the procedure you use to announce you decisions,” said Lisa Scagliotti, editor of the Shelburne News. “And there are members of the public who would be interested” to know the outcomes as well.

The committee explained it is allowed to discuss complaints in closed-door deliberative sessions in two points of its process, according to its revised rules. The first is when the committee receives a complaint and members must review it to determine if it merits a public hearing. The other time is after a complaint hearing is held and the committee must determine the outcome from the public hearing.

In both cases, the committee’s new rules allow for the committee to continue its deliberative session in person, by phone, or electronically until it offers a written decision. That time period has no limit and could last days or longer.

“It’s giving us the opportunity to make decisions without the public looking over our shoulders,” Suskin said at the committee’s meeting last Thursday. He explained that widening the ability to deliberate gives the committee more flexibility to confer without having to physically meet in the same space.

“We’re in the cloud,” committee member Bill Deming joked about deliberative sessions continuing online through email.

Scagliotti asked again how the committee would abide by Open Meeting Law.

The answer: It doesn’t because deliberative session is different from executive session, Suskin said. The board acts more like the judicial branch of government where judges may deliberate on decisions in cases away from public view.

“In the statute we are the same as the Vermont Supreme Court,” Suskin said, solidifying the committee’s language about deliberative sessions.

As for announcing the committee’s decisions on whether to pursue a complaint or how to rule on a complaint after a public hearing, Suskin explained that the committee would first notify the individuals involved – those bringing a complaint and those named in it.

It would next direct Town Clerk Diana Vachon to post the committee’s written decision on the town website. He added that the committee would also email its decisions to the Shelburne News.

“You be good to us, we’ll be good to you,” Deming said with a laugh, turning to the Shelburne News members in the room.

The committee initially intended to adopt its new rules and procedures last week, but Selectboard Chair Jerry Storey and Vice Chair Jaime Heins asked for time to review the draft and provide input.

“Given the collaborative approach we took to the new ordinance, I’d respectfully ask that the Ethics Committee hold off on adopting these new rules until the Selectboard has had an opportunity to review them and discuss any concerns,” Heins wrote in an email to the Ethics Committee last week.

Storey agreed, adding: “The three parts, Ordinance, rules and outreach are an integral whole and I believe our collaboration should be, too.”

The Ethics Committee discussed its options regarding the draft rules and decided to hold off on voting to adopt them until after the Selectboard has had a chance to review them.

The board was considering putting the rules and procedures on the Jan. 15 Selectboard meeting agenda.

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