Senate and voters have much to learn from Jack Noble episode
March 28, 2005
Long before the Ethics Committee investigating Jack Noble concluded its difficult work, and long before Sen. Noble submitted his resignation, the court of public opinion had decided that he should be expelled from the Idaho Legislature. As a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, I too reached the conclusion that Sen. Noble's conduct had crossed a line meriting his expulsion from the legislative body.
As the only freshman and the only attorney on the six-member Ethics Committee, I have thought carefully about our work and what lessons we can learn from this regrettable episode of Senate and Idaho history. Here are my thoughts:
* To maintain a healthy balance of power and integrity in our elected officials, we need qualified people to run for office, contested races, and a two-party system of government. Sen. Noble ran unopposed in the 2004 primary and general elections. On Nov. 2, 2004, over 16,000 District 21 voters punched the ballot indicating that they wanted Jack Noble to represent them in the Idaho Senate. Just four months later, the six Ethics Committee members were asked to decide whether Sen. Noble's behavior was so egregious that they should recommend he be removed from office. Idaho voters must recruit good candidates, pay attention to their choices, and consider the qualifications and records of the individuals they elect. Accountability must come, ultimately, at the ballot box.
* We have weak ethics laws. It is remarkable that it had been 15 years since the last ethics investigation in the Idaho Senate. Rather than speaking to an extraordinary level of integrity, however, the absence of ethics complaints may well be due to the inadequacy of our laws. Behavior that would merit an ethics investigation in another state passes as fully lawful, business as usual in Idaho. The fact that we have a "citizen legislature" should not be a free pass for self-serving legislation that may not be in the best interests of the state. Efforts to strengthen our laws have been rejected in recent years (even this year), but stronger campaign finance, personal disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws in our state would mean better government.
* Our recall law provides little relief to voters. The intense public interest in Sen. Noble's ethics investigation shows that Idaho citizens care very deeply about integrity and honesty in their elected officials. Had Sen. Noble not resigned or been expelled, however, a recall by the citizens of District 21 would have been difficult, if not impossible. The law requires more votes for a recall than were received by the elected official in the last general election. In this case, where Sen. Noble was unopposed in the general election, more that 16,687 District 21 constituents would have had to vote to recall him at a special election, a steep hurdle to meet. The requirements of our recall law need to be reconsidered and, again, we need contested races.
* The work of the Legislature, even legally and politically sensitive work, can be conducted openly. Arguments for closed meetings put forth by Republican legislative leaders were disproved by the quality and frankness of the Ethics Committee's work — all of which was open to the public and the media.
It is a privilege and honor to serve in the Legislature. As your elected officials, we hold a special trust and must be answerable for our actions. We need laws in place that reflect our citizens' expectations for accountability, and that ensure swift recourse in the event of unethical or illegal behavior. Let's not let this unfortunate time in Idaho's history pass without reflection and a call for change.
Kate Kelly is a first-term Democratic senator from South Boise's District 18.
The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.
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