Editorial: Editorial: Public has crucial stake in Idaho’s ethics rules

Editorial from The Spokesman-Review

Idaho lawmaker Joe Palmer said the most puzzling thing in explaining why a bill codifying the House’s ethics rules should take a shortcut to a floor vote rather than follow the normal course back to the State Affairs Committee.

“There is no reason to come back here for a public hearing. This does not involve the public,” the Meridian Republican said.

On the contrary, everything the Legislature does involves the public. And since the measure in question would remove the public from certain proceedings related to House members’ conduct, the public is unquestionably involved.

The measure under consideration was offered by House Speaker Lawerence Denney in the aftermath of a flurry of ethics concerns over state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. Denney’s bill would largely reaffirm rules and practices that are already in place and backed up by an attorney general’s opinion saying only House members may file ethics complaints against House members.

That part’s reasonable. Private citizens have many other ways to kick up a loud fuss over elected officials’ misbehavior. They can make their complaints heard, and voters hold the ultimate power of the ballot to turn scoundrels out.

But Denney’s bill includes a troublesome if not downright alarming provision. It would require that member-against-member complaints be kept confidential until the Ethics Committee has found probable cause to look into them. If no such determination were ever reached, the public might never find out.

That might almost make sense if just any old rabble could drown the House in specious and ungrounded accusations. But, remember, the bill would say that complaints may be filed only by fellow honorables, from whom more reflection and restraint could be expected.

But when it does happen – when elected officials are so strongly offended by a colleague’s unethical conduct that they need to protest formally – the public has an unmistakable interest. The quality and integrity of their government is at stake.

Moreover, there are dual levels of accountability. The public – the ultimate source of political authority in a democratic system – is entitled not only to judge the accusation but also the manner in which the accused’s associates deal with it.

These are fundamentals of representative democracy. Speaker Denney and Rep. Palmer should be better acquainted with them.

Editorial from The Spokesman-Review

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