Question re City Councilman’s alleged conflict of interest
This recently happened in my small suburban town and I want to know if it’s correct or not. The City Council consists of elected representatives. City council is a part-time job with meetings in the evenings and the members all have full-time day jobs. One council member’s full-time job is as a teacher at the city high school. Schools are funded in part by a tax on the value of real estate
At issue before council is whether or not to grant a so-called tax abatement to a proposed development, which means that the development will get a break on its real estate taxes for a period of time. That is, the schools will get less money than they would otherwise during that period of time.
The council member in question abstained from the vote on whether to grant the abatement or not, saying that it was a conflict of interest for him to vote on this question because he was employed by the school system which will be directly impacted by the tax abatement.
I say that the council member shirked his duty and that there was no conflict of interest. A conflict of interest would occur only if the council member was an investor in the proposed development, not because he’ll be indirectly impacted by the change to his employer’s revenue stream. What do you guys think?
I can see where he would abstain. He has a vested interest in the school system getting more funds so his objectivity would be out the window. If he didn’t show for meetings he would be shirking, I don’t think the situation you describe is.
He may have been overly cautious, but I don’t think he was shirking his duties, really. I think he was just covering his bases in order to keep his seat on the council safe. You really never know when someone is going to bring something like that vote into question.
In a neighboring town to mine, one of the council members is also the fire chief. He always abstains from voting when it has anything to do with the fire department. Again, he’s just covering his bases.
Perhaps by saying in my OP the councilman shirked his duty I was being too harsh but I don’t think so. “Covering his bases”, or more precisely “covering his own rear end to preserve his own political viability”, isn’t a valid reason for abstaining in my mind. It equates to saying “I don’t want to take a public stand on this important issue so I’m going to pass on it.”, which is not what a councilman is supposed to do. The very essence of his job as councilman is to take positions and vote on such matters, and to take the heat or the praise that comes with such positions.
It certainly sounds like a long stretch. Does he abstain on all matters related to the finances of the City? If his argument is that he, as a employee of the School Board, is paid through tax dollars and he wants to avoid any appearance of conflict, he should consistently abstain on all development matters (they all have an impact (positive or negative) on municipal finances). He would also be bound to abstain on adoption of the municipal budget.
First of all, the decision to abstain rests first of all with the councilman. If he thinks there’s a conflict of interest and decides to abstain, that is his right. Even if the corporation counsel determines there’s no conflict, he still has the right to abstain.
It sounds like he does not want to vote on issues of tax abatement (not all finance issues – there is a difference). If that’s the way he feels, that is his right. No one can force him to vote if he doesn’t want to.
Well sure, a councilman can always chicken out and abstain if he wants to. The question I wanted to get at though is whether or not this situation is truly a conflict of interest, rather than a convenient excuse for him to duck the issue. In this particular case, the City’s attorney’s opinion is that there IS a conflict of interest. My opinion is that the city attorney and the councilman are wrong.
Until this year, our city’s mayor was also the principal at a local public grade school. As our school district has been in trouble financially, and the city is building, I personally thought there was a conflict of interest. This mayor’s objectivity was called into question on a couple of occasions - when new housing was planned in his school’s residential area, for example, and when the location of a new fire department branch were planned. The mayor doesn’t vote on city council things, but he has some veto power and he certainly has some influence. In your case, I think the councilman was wise to abstain, because this could be regarded as a conflict - even if it is not in FACT a conflict. As long as he’s not abstaining on other issues that can’t possibly be construed as a conflict, I’d say he’s not shirking.
LifeOnWry, I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree with you. “Objectivity” and its partner neutrality are not qualities that make a good legislator. The yare what one looks for in a judge. To my mind bias (so long as it is not bias against a person’s race, religion, national origin, etc. ) in a councilman is perfectly fine so long as his or her bias is out in the open for the voters to take into account at election time.