With much fanfare the Utah Legislature recently announced the members of the new Independent Ethics Commission--but who are these ethics watchdogs?---
It bears a close look given that the Legislature’s decision to create an independent ethics commission came about only after a critical mass of scandals on the hill prompted Utahns to not only demand ethics reform, but to even push for a ballot initiative to create one. The folks of Utahns for Ethical Government—who failed to collect enough signatures to have their reforms to be considered in the 2012 election—still worry that the Legislature might not be the best ones to appoint an ethics commission.
Do they have a valid point with this newly announced ethics commission A-team? Republican leaders selected two judges for the commission, while Democrats selected one. Republicans and democrat leaders also selected a former legislator each for the commission. Three out of the five commissioners--Michael Wilkins, Jon Memmott, and Gayle McKeachnie have had some strong ties to the Legislature and the Governor’s office, or supported them on some controversial issues, worth considering.
This recently retired Utah Supreme Court Judge had a strong history in the court serving Utah for 10 years. He also stands out as the only Utah Supreme Court Judge to have been in favor of Senate Bill 109 from the 2010 legislative session. The bill would have given the power to appoint the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the Governor, instead of leaving the decision to be decided by the five Supreme Court judges.
Had the bill passed it would have been the first change to this practice in Utah’s history. Critics also worry it would have allowed the Governor to exert undue influence over the Chief Justice, and put a possibly unconstitutional constraint upon the separation of powers in Utah. A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll from February even showed that 73 percent of Utahns were not in favor of changing this practice. Wilkins saw no problem with it.
In the 2008 legislative session Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden proposed a constitutional revision that would have allowed the public to vote on legislative compensation. More specifically, whether or not legislators should be banned from receiving any gifts from lobbyists in exchange for an annual salary. Second District Judge Jon Memmott, also a member of the Legislature’s Constitutional Revision Commission, helped spike the bill, arguing the Compensation Commission was overseeing salary paid and compensation for legislators adequately enough.
Memmott also served as Governor Norm Bangerter’s legal counsel and as Director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
McKeachnie, served closely with both the Herbert, Huntsman and Walker administrations after also serving as a legislator. McKeachnie's latest position of power prior to the commission was acting as on Gov. Herbert’s efficiency panel that scrutinized state programs to find places to cut to help balance the $850 million 2010 budget shortfall.
Prior to that McKeachnie was noted in the news for acting as Huntsman’s rural affairs advisor, collecting a fat $80,000 contract in 2005 for the position. McKeachnie was a holdover from the previous administration where he had served as the Lt. Governor for Olene Walker. During his time at the helm of the State Elections Office, McKeachnie had an interesting showdown with a citizen’s ballot-initiative group.
McKeachnie’s office had denied the eligibility of a ballot to put a bond on the election for a one-time sales tax increase to help support conservation efforts across the state. State elections sided with a number of county clerks and denied the eligibility of the groups’ signatures. The Supreme Court however reversed that decision since the clerks and the state had refuted the signatures only because the signers had put a different address on the petition than they had put on their voter registration.
Not only did the court not find reason enough to thwart the initiative, but in the process of examining the counts they actually discovered 139 more votes in favor of the initiative than were previously tallied.
OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE FOR ETHICS COMMISSION LEGISLATIVE
ETHICS COMMISSION SELECTED SALT LAKE CITY -
Today, legislative leaders announced appointments to the Ethics Commission, created this year in a package of reform bills. The new five member commission will consist of a retired Supreme Court Justice, former Appeals Court Judge, former District Court judge and two distinguished former legislators.
The following have accepted the invitation to serve on the new commission:
* Michael Wilkins, recently retired Justice of the Utah Supreme Court and former judge on the Utah Court of Appeals.
* Russell Bench, retired judge who served on the Utah Court of Appeals and on the Judicial Conduct Commission.
* Jon Memmott, recently retired from the bench in Utah's 2nd District Court, who previously served as Governor Bangerter's legal counsel and as director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
* Gayle McKeachnie, a rancher, practicing attorney, former legislator, and former Lieutenant Governor of the State of Utah.
* Joanne Milner, former legislator and community advocate, currently serving as the Education Partnership Coordinator for the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office.
This new commission is tasked to investigate allegations of ethical breaches within the state legislature, patterned after the work of Judicial Conduct Commission. Any allegation they find to be supported by a preponderance of evidence will be made public and forwarded to the House or Senate Legislative Ethics Committee for a public hearing. Legislative leaders have high hopes for the commission. "This is the genesis of a more open approach to ethics hearings. The commissioners carry a broad spectrum of expertise in law, judicial investigations, and the legislative process that provides the insight they will need." said Michael Waddoups, President of the Utah Senate.
"Each one of them has a reputation for honesty and fairness. Our goal is to ensure the light of open government continues to shine on the state of Utah." Speaker of the House, Dave Clark said, "The Utah State Legislature has spent incredible time and energy scrutinizing the rules by which we govern ourselves. We are in the process of quietly transforming the very culture in which we work. This commission is a key element of that larger effort."
Patricia Jones, Senate Minority Leader said, "This new commission will pioneer the processes and precedents of legislative ethics investigation work. Ideally, they will have very little to do. If issues arise, however, this is a competent, fair-minded team who will do the job right." House Minority Leader David Litvack added, "We believe our actions are responsive to the will of the people we represent. We want to provide greater accountability for our behavior, better transparency in our work, and a state government that inspires citizens instead of disappointing them."
The Ethics Commission was created by resolution as a legislative rule. In November, voters will decide if this commission will be permanently enshrined and protected in the Utah State Constitution.