Jay Furr is a resident of Richmond, Vt.
I have been a Vermont resident for 20 years and, as it happens, serve as the duly appointed weigher of coal for the town of Richmond (population 4,000 or so). Said job has no responsibilities whatsoever and pays nothing in return — it’s a carryover from bygone days. Since the town’s voters have never seen fit to get rid of the position, the town manager finds some sucker to take on the title each year and the select board ratifies the appointment. Then the weigher of coal gets down to the hard work of not actually weighing coal.
The position comes directly from Vermont statutes, which state that “a weigher of coal shall be sworn and shall not be directly or indirectly interested in the sale of coal. Upon request of the seller or purchaser, he or she shall weigh all coal sold in his or her town” and that “the fees of a weigher of coal shall be $0.10 for the first ton and $0.04 for each additional ton, to be paid by the person applying for the weighing.”
This dates back to the days when homes were primarily heated by coal and you wanted to make sure you got a fair weight for the price you paid. Towns would have official municipal scales, and the weigher of coal would be in charge of them.
As it happens, Richmond doesn’t have official municipal scales. No town in Vermont does. I’ve thought about showing up at the select board meeting and asking them to buy some, but I figure I’ve only got so many opportunities to be the town kook. I want to make the most of them.
This week, after I had served as the weigher of coal for three years or so, the town finally got around to asking me to read and agree to abide by the town’s ethics policy. I take the nonperformance of my duties very seriously, so I read and signed the policy accordingly.
You can read it yourself online. It says that public officials such as myself should “work towards the public interest” and “recognize the proper role of all government bodies.” This includes refusing to accept anything of economic value and refraining from using the public position to further a personal interest.
I’m glad to have finally gotten a copy. My master’s degree is in public administration, and I know about these sorts of things. It makes sense that there would be an ethics policy; it just had never come up before.
I will need to take all this very seriously. I want no conflicts of interest when it comes to my not weighing coal. I want to show no favoritism to family members and other individuals in the nonpursuance of my duties.
But as I sit here, enlightened and filled with a new sense of responsibility regarding the public trust placed in me as weigher of coal, it occurs to me: There seem to be more stated policies for ethical nonperformance of coal-weighing than there are for the office of president of the United States.