"If not us, who? If not now, when?"
A quote attributed to many, among them Ronald Reagan, Bobby Kennedy and most recently Utah state Rep. Phil Riesen, one of five legislators who referred to it when deciding to file a complaint to investigate alleged ethics violations by one of the House members. State Reps. Riesen, Roz McGee, Neil Hansen, Sheryl Allen and Steve Mascaro should be applauded and thanked by Utah residents for fighting to bring back a sense of integrity to our government.
The courage and political will the group exercised should not be underestimated, especially for the two Republicans, Mascaro and Allen, who had the audacity to restore ethics to our Legislature. All five members were willing to risk their political careers in order to try to regain the people's trust in their government. Given the recent history of the abuse of power exercised by the majority political party, they were aware of the punishment they would have to endure for doing so. The reaction was immediate: House Speaker Greg Curtis quickly labeled them as "dissident Republicans," rather than supporting the ethics committee hearing the complaint. One would expect the leader of the House of Representatives to be the guardian and role model of integrity in government, rather than being so dismissive in assuring the people's business is done in public.
It's a dark time for Utahns when a legislative leader, rather than encouraging openness and debate necessary for making public policy, seems more concerned about wielding and keeping his political power. The speaker gives credence to the perception of how legislative leaders control legislators by punishing and retaliating against them when they dare to speak contrary to leadership positions. They are labeled dissidents and subjected to tactics tantamount to "killing the messenger" by publicly questioning their integrity. Such action by a legislative leader creates a chilling environment that stifles honest debate. It reinforces why the public has a lack of trust in its government. It should not then be surprising to see Utah leads the nation in low primary voter turnout.
Even though the five legislators who signed the complaint were aware of the consequences, they put principle above politics. They wanted to return ethics to government and have its elected leaders live by the rules. It's ironic that it is this Legislature that keeps talking about living by the rules. Hopefully the five legislators, by the courage and leadership they have shown, will have opened the door for other lawmakers to come forward to return ethics to the people's House.
Last Monday, the ethics committee meeting that was held to hear the complaint was quickly ended when, at the 11th hour, the representative in question submitted his resignation. Somehow one is left to wonder if his party "threw him under the bus," since earlier he had said he wanted a hearing on the matter and his name cleared. The ethics committee was all-too-quick to accept the opinion of the legislative counsel that since the individual had resigned, they had no further jurisdiction over the matter and the committee should be disbanded.
Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, a committee member, did ask if that meant the committee could not look into other elements of the complaint and was given the same answer. There was no opportunity, and little appetite, to challenge counsel's opinion, though it would have at least given the appearance legislators were interested in restoring ethics in our government.Once again, residents lose out and continue to lose faith and trust in their government. Hopefully, there will be other lawmakers who will follow the example of their five colleagues who are trying to restore ethics in the Legislature. As citizens, we also need to ask ourselves, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"
A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]