If you care one whit about ethical governance, and want state lawmakers to be held accountable when they break the rules, vote for Utah Constitutional Amendment D on Nov. 2.
The amendment would establish an independent Legislative Ethics Commission which would function like a grand jury, taking testimony and conducting investigations in order to screen ethics complaints against sitting lawmakers.
The commission would consist of staff, a budget to hire investigators and a five-member board armed with subpoena powers and composed of former lawmakers and retired judges.
If four of five commissioners would determine a complaint has merit, it would be forwarded to either the House or Senate ethics committee for trial. Lawmakers can be censured or expelled if found to have committed a violation of the legislative code of conduct or a crime of moral turpitude.
The amendment vote marks the first, and perhaps the last, opportunity for Utahns to break the good-old-boy network that too often allows legislators to go unpunished. Under the current system, which allows only lawmakers to lodge complaints against lawmakers, few complaints are filed, and legislators are rarely tried and disciplined.
The proposal isn't perfect.
For example, if complaints are upheld by the commission, lawmakers will still be tried and disciplined by their peers, as required by the state constitution. Allowing lawmakers to be tried by an impartial body would be another amendment worth seeking.
Also, to prevent smearing lawmakers with unfounded charges, the commission will conduct its business in the dark. Hearings will be closed, testimony will be delivered behind closed doors and the public will only learn of an alleged ethics violation if the complaint is upheld by the commission and referred to the Legislature for disposition. It seems that in an attempt to shield individual lawmakers from false charges, the Legislature is risking the reputation of the entire body by not allowing citizens to judge if the process works.
Worse, the Legislature wrote the rules for selecting commission members, operating the commission and handling complaints. It's a little like allowing the fox to write the rules for the hen house.
Still, the amendment beats the status quo. In fact, it even has the support of Utahns for Ethical Government, a citizens' group that tried but failed to place a wide-ranging ethics initiative on the ballot. If you are for ethical government, you should support the amendment, too.