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The Legislature Looks at Internal Rules

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by Ed Sutherland

MONTPELIER — Rules are capturing the attention of some in the Legislature this session. Some are obscure and rarely used, such as House Rule 75 governing the ethics of whether or not a representative has too much direct interest in an issue to influence it. Some are new, such as a rule requiring lobbyists to wear identification, and one seeks to further limit access to public records.

The Vermont House of Representatives has 92 rules spelled out in a document titled “Rules and Orders of the House of Representatives as amended May 8, 2014 by the Clerk of the House.”

One of them is causing a bit of confusion. Until this session, House members were governed by an obscure one-sentence rule that was employed largely on the honor system having to do with allowing members to vote on a topic in which they have a certain kind of interest. But it seems unclear to many members just what the rule is intended to govern.

Rule 75 simply states: “Members shall not be permitted to vote upon any question in which they are immediately or directly interested.” What constitutes immediate or direct interest? How do members know when the rule is broken if employment is undisclosed? And just how many House members run afoul of the rule? Enter the House Ethics Panel, a five-member committee. Members of the committee are appointed by the House Rules panel and oversee ethics complaints as well as educate members about Rule 75.

“I would think that few Vermonters know about Rule 75 and any new member coming into the body wouldn’t either until we (the Legislature) make it known what Rule 75 is intended to accomplish,” said Ethics Panel Chairman Rep. David Deen, a Democrat from Westminster. Deen is also a member of the House Rules Committee. Perhaps more important than its educational role is the requirement House members disclose their employment as well as boards where they are paid.

On the subject of lobbying, two Senate members are taking another stab at requesting lobbyists wear identification while working at the State House. The bill is written by a political odd couple. Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-S. Burlington, is the co-founder of lobbying firm Sirotkin and Necrason and Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Montpelier.

On another topic, but one that also concerns tightening up the rules, lawmakers are trying to pass laws exempting certain records from the public realm. Two bills touching on access to public records, H.17 and H.18, are wending their way through the legislative process. The first would require state agencies to inform the Legislature when a law would add  to the list of public records exemptions. After being approved by the House, H.17 sits in the Senate Government Operations Committee. H.18 removes some public records exemptions, but enlarges exemptions of personal records.

The new exemption forbids release of personal records “if the nature, gravity, and potential consequences of the invasion of privacy occasioned by disclosure outweighs the public interest in favor of disclosure.” Among the records off-limits to  disclosure includes financial data and discipline of public officials.

“There are many records containing personal information that surely no one disputes should be easily accessible. One example is each town or city’s voter checklist. The checklist of eligible voters contains names, which are personal information. A second example is a city or town’s grand list. It also contains names, along with residents’ street addresses and house values. Names, addresses, and house values are all personal information — they are information relating to a specific person,” said Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert told the House Government Operations Committee.

While small advances in Vermont’s political ethics is visible, the state’s “citizen Legislature” remains extremely cautious about allowing too much light on its behavior.

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