As a constituent, I appreciate the opportunity to comment here on the pending “ethics” legislation.
1. Somebody snuck the open meeting law “reform” into the ethics bill, and some of it may make it very difficult for school committees to have meaningful confidential screenings of candidates for superintendencies. Legislative zealotry can also backfire if we go overboard. Despite the litteral language of the current law, some district attorneys won’t allow an elected local body to act as its own screening committee. If you can’t have a confidential initial process, no one who is decent will apply for a town manager position, school superintendency, etc.
2. We all love ethics reforms, but it must be acknowledged that the state ethics commission is already among the nation’s most strict and zealous enforcers of state ethics law. I am personally uncomfortable adding authority to a body that seems to revel in citing people – even when there is no finding of wrongdoing.
My most recent example of a regulatory body going over the top was an initial opinion offered by the Ethics Commission’s legal spokesperson that local elected boards (school committees for example) did ot have the authority to take a postion on a ballot question. I even referenced the first amendment and the more powerful free speech provisions of the state constitution and was told that those provisions did not apply to the Ethics Commission in issuing that specific opinion. Representing school committees, I started calling newspapers and radio stations to tell them of this opinion. In fact, several school committee wre prepared to (and one did) take a public stance on last year’s ballot questions hoping to be citied so they could have their day in court. Subsequently, we were informed that the Ethics Commission had rethought its position and “believed we may have interpreted the law a little too narrowly.” They clarified it to say that it would be OK to take a position on a question that related to the scope of the board’s work.
I would continue to argue that a) an elected board can take any position it wants on any matter of public policy. (My goodness, think of what would happen if the Cambridge City Council couldn’t take a postion on some foreign policy question – they’d all be doing life if the state ethics commission had its way.); and b) I’d be very leery of extending authority to a board that works in the combination of secrecy and zeal of this kind.
Based on my 35 years of being on the receiving end of various state regulatory agency edicts, I think it’s time to study the humility index of some of our more arrogant regulatory agencies to see if this is tolerable. Must we accept as a given this kind of arrogance, including the ungovernable prosecutorial zeal we see in some state agencies from time to time.
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