Editorial: Conflict of interest

Conflicting interests are inevitable in a small town governed mostly by citizen volunteers. But, if handled reasonably and appropriately, conflicts of interest needn’t be a debilitating problem for town government.

Openness is the key to keeping conflicts of interest from being problematic.

Board or commission members and also town employees who have conflicts of interest, or possible conflicts of interest, can keep themselves above suspicion and reproach by announcing what their potential conflict is, and recusing themselves from all decision-making and all related discussion.

In announcing their conflict before recusing themselves, board members need to be forthright, and offer some specifics on what their conflict or potential conflict is. “I have a financial interest in this proceeding because…” “My wife’s brother is a partner in the company bidding on this contract…” “This involves property across the street from my house…” “The neighbor who raised this issue used to be my son’s Little League coach…”

If a public official isn’t sure whether a seemingly tangential relationship to someone or something requires being recused from proceedings, the best course is to make the specific details public and seek the opinion of fellow board or commission members.

The town charter addresses the concern pretty directly:

“An official or employee who has any financial or other personal interest in any official action under consideration shall either: (1) Disqualify himself or herself from participating in the deliberation and decision-making thereupon; or (2) Disclose on the record the nature and extent of such interest and seek a ruling as follows: The governing Town official, board or commission involved shall then rule or vote on the official's or employee's right to: (a) Participate in discussion of the issue; (b) Right to vote on the issue.”

Most of the time, people understand they have a conflict and don’t need to seek their colleagues opinion on whether to be recused. But the option is always there.

Again, the appropriate starting point for handling this sort of situation is a full and accurate disclosure of what the potential conflict is.