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Commentary: Does North Dakota need an ethics commission?

columnist Rob Port

Ellen Chaffee, Democrat Ryan Taylor's running mate in his 2012 gubernatorial campaign, is circulating a draft constitutional amendment which would, among other things, create an ethics commission for the State of North Dakota.

The aim is to put the amendment before voters by way of the initiated measure process. I obtained a copy of the draft by way of someone who was asked by Chaffee to be on the sponsoring committee for the measure.

Chaffee is going forward with the measure. When I asked her about the draft she told me I'd get a copy of the final version "at the same time as other reporters."

Democrats have been harping about the idea of an ethics commission for years now. And to be sure, some reform was needed. For instance, North Dakota law allowed for state politicians to use campaign donations for personal things. Like, say, a new boat or a vacation. It also allowed for donations from foreigners.

Chaffee's measure (at least the draft version I've seen) seeks to address those issues, though the Legislature passed statutory laws in 2017 to do just that. Republican-sponsored bills also made campaign reporting requirements uniform among legislative and statewide candidates, requires candidates to report personal contributions and loans to their campaigns, and require reporting of expenditures by category.

These are meaningful reforms which will make politics in North Dakota more transparent. And while there's no question that more can be done — I'd require that every candidate file weekly reports detailing every penny — we seem to be moving in the right direction.

The big thrust of Chaffee's measure is the creation of an ethics commission. It would be a five-person committee consisting of a current or retired judge or justice appointed by the governor, as well as four other members who would be appointed, one each, by the minority and majority leaders of the state House and Senate.

Any member of the public would be allowed to submit a complaint to this commission, even anonymously.

Given the cynical attitudes most of us have about politicians (an attitude well-earned, I'd argue) the idea of an ethics commission seems reasonable.

Yet when have these sort of ethics committees or commissions ever improved ethics?

Some of the most corrupt states in the nation have a well-established ethics apparatus. In Washington D.C. there is a whole host of ethics bodies between the House and Senate chambers. What do they accomplish?

Mostly they serve as a venue for score settling and partisan machinations.

Partisan operatives are very much interested in creating an ethics commission. Such a commission, even for the minority party, is a powerful weapon.

The public, however, isn't served well by these bodies.

If we want to promote ethics in North Dakota we should work to make the political process more transparent so that voters can see what the politicians are up to. With better transparency, the only ethics committee we need is the electorate making their views known at the ballot box.