When I was visiting family in California this past April, I read newspaper articles about a payroll firm hired by Sacramento County that had stolen $18 million from the county by siphoning off payroll tax money. The owner of the firm got 44 months prison time and another couple of employees got time as well.
Now that, my friends, is an ethics problem.
Across the country, in the Town of Wallingford, two Town Councilors voted on the purchase of two properties for the Wallingford Cemetery. One Councilor in a volunteer member of the Wallingford Cemetery Association and another one’s wife is.
And according to a few who attended that last Town Council meeting, that meets the definition of an ethics problem. This column will make two observations concerning this recurrent raising of our public official’s ethical standing in the performance of his/her duties. First, questioning a person’s ethics has now become a political tool. Secondly, when the subject of conflict of interest arises, oftentimes common sense leaves the building.
I suppose that accusing one’s opponents of unethical behavior has been political sport since the establishment of human society, but unless it has some validity, making such a charge is, at the very least, a distraction from the real issue at hand and, at worst, a cheap political stunt. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly used as a political hammer here in town. Can’t win the argument on the issues? Charge “conflict of interest.” And if the evidence of such a conflict seems flimsy, then call it an “appearance” of a conflict. This happened during the Wooding-Caplan property debate, again with the argument over the Simpson Court/Holy Trinity wall issue, and now this cemetery property purchase. In Wooding-Caplan, the purpose was to get a councilor to recuse himself from voting on the issue (yes, it was yours truly that was the subject of that complaint). The Simpson Court complaint was withdrawn in the middle of the hearing as the person making the charge saw the argument collapsing as he was making it Now for this latest issue. Bringing up the cemetery property purchase as a conflict of interest was, as far as I can see, merely an attempt to redefine the term so that practically anything at all, even something as tangential as being an unpaid volunteer on a board that might have an interest in an issue discussed by the Town Council, has the “appearance of a conflict.” If the definition becomes as broad as that, then the charge of such a conflict becomes a much more potent tool to be used. The idea is to get public officials to run for cover every time the finger is pointed at them by anyone at all for anything at all. How handy for someone who doesn’t really have the facts of the issue on his side.
Secondly, when can the ingredient of common sense be added to this ethics violation stew being brewed up ever more frequently? Of course it should be expected for Councilors to disclose any existing associations or affiliations. And indeed there are uncounted instances when public office holders have used their authority to enrich themselves. But you have to be able to connect the dots in some logical, common sense fashion. Because your kids or grandkids go to a school, you have to recuse yourself from voting on an issue concerning that school? Where is the financial gain? Because you serve on a board overseeing a town cemetery, you will somehow benefit if the town buys property to expand that cemetery?
If utterly unwarranted ethics charges become commonplace, it is the political process that gets damaged – a political process that all of us look to for the election of substantive, serious political officials. It’s not something to throw about casually, and the charge had better have some substance.
That has not been the case as of late.
St ephen Knight is a former Walling f or d Town Councilor.