It’s been said that every time a public body tightens its ethics code, an angel gets its wings.
OK, maybe this was the first time that was actually said; but it’s a worthwhile thought, because encouraging and enforcing ethical behavior among elected and appointed public officials is in all our interest. People entrusted with public policy, public money and the power of public office have a particular charge to behave in ways that hold tight the ideals of democracy and work toward the betterment of the commonwealth.
So, it was heartening to see that Keene Mayor George Hansel recently requested the City Council, through its Planning, Licenses and Development Committee, begin reviewing some changes to the council’s conflict-of-interest policy.
That policy, and similar codes for other public bodies, is a central effort in providing the necessary transparency regarding the motives of officials and in both encouraging and educating those officials as to when they need to put their own best interests aside for the greater good.
Conflicts of interest arise when an official might gain personally from a vote or otherwise wielding the influence of their position. Typically, the law in New Hampshire notes such conflicts only regarding potential financial gain, though we’d argue — and have — that there are other ways in which to benefit personally from the actions of a board, committee, commission or council.
What Hansel put forth is actually a number of changes to the council’s Rules of Order. Some are simple updates or clarifications that have been under discussion since his predecessor held the gavel.
Hansel’s proposed changes to the conflict rule seem very much based on his own specific situation. Last year, as a councilor, Hansel asked to be excused from voting on matters relating to the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., the quasi-public development group whose board he chairs. At the time, the way the rule is written, it was debatable whether Hansel’s recusal request met the letter of the law, but it was clearly the right thing to do, and his fellow councilors agreed.
Though he gains no personal financial benefit from any transactions or agreements between MEDC and the city, Hansel noted he does have a fiduciary responsibility to that agency as a board member, one that could, in theory, conflict with what’s best for the city. Though several councilors opposed his recusal, we trust they understand the issue, and were simply noting the actual language of the rule did not apply.
Under the changes Hansel is now championing, that would change. Any fiduciary responsibility would trigger a potential conflict — not just personal financial gain. He’s also arguing for the mayor to be included in the rule in all cases — the current rule does not pertain to the mayor, perhaps because he or she rarely votes on issues.
It’s worth noting, though, that the rule does not just cover actual voting. It also precludes councilors from taking part in the discussion of issues before the council if they have a conflict, and from trying to persuade fellow councilors, with the sole exception being speaking from the audience during a public hearing, as any citizen may.
By and large, the city’s conflict-of-interest rule, as is the case for much of the state — including the Legislature’s own self-guidelines — is pretty lax, with the assumption being that, hey, we’re all responsible, well-intentioned people here; we wouldn’t intentionally act inappropriately. But rules aren’t meant for those likely to do the right thing. They’re meant to keep in line those who would put themselves above the common good. Thus, any clarity or strengthening of those rules is, in our opinion, a good thing.
Importantly, ethics rules exist both to keep officials in line and to assure the public that its business is being done on the up-and-up. Therefore, if there appears to the everyday citizen that a conflict exists, then it does, because the public’s confidence in its institutions is eroded.
The changes Hansel is proposing may not go as far as we’d ideally like to see — that would mean acknowledging that an official may benefit in ways other than financially and that even the appearance of self-dealing is to be avoided — but every step toward the light is a positive one.