Conflicts of interest: You can smell them from a mile away

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Conflicts of interest look complicated. But are they really?

When other measurements fall short, does a decision pass the smell test?

Let’s consider a recent example in Post Falls.

A member of the city’s planning and zoning commission did not participate in the actual vote on a large project that bothered some citizens citing safety concerns. While he didn’t officially declare a conflict of interest, the P&Z commissioner and the city’s attorney deemed his recusal as satisfying any conflict of interest concerns. But let’s look more closely.

The P&Z commissioner, who makes his living as a civil engineer, actually presented the project to the commission on behalf of the developer. He did so because the developer is also the commissioner’s client.

If you’ve ever sat through these presentations, and most citizens never have, they typically are professional and respectful. But make no mistake: The presentations are sales pitches. They include all the information most likely to lead to approval. They are not a dispassionate, objective appraisal of the worthiness of a project, with as much effort expended to revealing the cons as the pros.

With that in mind, citizens have a right to ask if this example passes the smell test. Without casting the least cloud over the commissioner’s ethics — he’s playing according to the rules of the game and is highly respected by his peers — our sniffer says it does not.

Planning and zoning commissions in Idaho are comprised of volunteers who should be applauded for their public service. If your community is fortunate enough to have an expert like a civil engineer on the board, that’s a valuable asset. But when commissioners are actually making the formal pitch to their peers, they’ve gone too far.

Because these panels are volunteer, the camaraderie and collegiality are part of the payback for their public service. Put yourself in the place of this commissioner’s colleagues. He has just asked for your support of a project that will to some degree enrich him. Even if he abstains from the vote, his presentation has made his implicit support clear to all. Are you going to vote “no” and risk friction on the panel or jeopardize a relationship? In your heart of hearts, did you feel comfortable with his making the presentation in the first place?

In this example, the legal minimum was likely met.

As long as elected or appointed officials participate in public processes that will directly benefit them financially, however, they should not be surprised when conscientious citizens are seen holding their noses.

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