The discussion of the matter may have been only fleeting, but the Keene City Council’s action on it could not have been more welcome.
At its Sept. 5 meeting, the council took up a letter submitted by at-large Councilor George Hansel, asking whether he should be recused from discussions or decisions relating to financial transactions or agreements between the city and Monadnock Economic Development Corp. In its role of bringing economic development projects to the region, MEDC often has business before the council, a situation that will surely continue; for example, if MEDC’s recent proposal to develop an arts corridor for downtown Keene is to proceed. The issue in Hansel’s letter arises because he is vice chairman of MEDC’s board.
The city, like other municipalities and the state itself, relies heavily on elected officials who also have jobs and other outside relationships. Not surprisingly, personal interests can intrude on the public’s business, and the council has a policy to address conflicts of interest. Regrettably, that policy is narrowly drawn to apply only when a councilor or an immediate family member has a financial interest in a matter before the council or is employed by a business with a matter before the council.
We say “regrettably” because what the policy does not address are situations that raise in the public’s mind the appearance of a conflict of interest. In a time when fractious debate has increased distrust of public institutions at all levels, transparency in the transaction of government business is more critical than ever. And the public deserves to believe — and know — that its representatives are acting solely on its behalf.
In his letter, Hansel noted that, as only a board member of MEDC, he does not stand to receive any financial benefit. But he also pointed out that role requires him to act in MEDC’s best interest, and thus raised with the council the concern about a potential conflict. Interestingly, the brief discussion at the council highlighted the importance of appearances in assuring the public of the absence of conflicts. Councilor Terry Clark, one of the four not voting in favor of recusal, stated Hansel should continue to participate in council action on MEDC-related matters, likening his MEDC service to that of other councilors in the past on nonprofit boards. The only other comment prior to the vote was from Councilor Mitchell Greenwald, who clearly recognized that there was more at stake. He cited MEDC’s ongoing business relationships with the city and stated, “I tend to agree with Councilor Hansel that perception is important.”
To the council’s credit, that view was the one that carried the debate. It would be even better, however, if the council were to expand its policy to formally address situations where public confidence in its work might be jeopardized by a member having a personal, business or other relationship or interest that the public might reasonably believe is a conflict, even if the member believes otherwise. Such an expansion is not unheard of in New Hampshire. The conflict-of-interest policy of the Manchester school board, for instance, states: “The appearance (our emphasis added) of conflict of interest undermines the public confidence in the integrity of the school district, its board members, directors, officers, and employees, and should be scrupulously avoided.”
For now, it’s left to individual councilors to recognize when, in the absence of a direct financial interest, a conflict might nevertheless be perceived, and, even if the council doesn’t vote for recusal, to abstain from voting. Credit Hansel for seeking guidance regarding his situation, and credit Greenwald for articulating that how the public might perceive his role with MEDC matters as much as any financial interest would have.
After all, appearances do matter.