Can someone working in the public sector serve two masters without having some kind of conflict of interest?
Sure, it’s possible.
But if there’s a chance that someone’s position in one community could influence decisions they make in another, then if they want to avoid a conflict of interest, they need to give up one of the jobs.
That’s the crux of a proposed change to the town of Glenville’s ethics law that will be the subject of a public hearing tonight.
The proposed change would restrict town employees from holding jobs in other governments “when the employment can be reasonably expected to create a conflict with or impairs his or her independence of judgment or the proper discharge of his or her official duties.”
There doesn’t seem to be a strong argument against that.
Back in November, we argued against the decision of a member of the Niskayuna school board to serve simultaneously on the school board and town board. Because the two boards are taxing entities and often have competing interests, we argued that it would be impossible for someone with even the highest ethical standards to act independently in either position.
That’s what you want to avoid.
In Glenville, the issue of a conflict came about last year when the village of Scotia’s highway superintendent ran for a seat on the Glenville town board, exposing himself to legitimate conflict concerns over decisions about infrastructure and taxing. And it may come up again next year should a Glenville board member who serves as lawyer in the county attorney’s office runs for re-election.
Not every situation automatically presents a substantial conflict.
For instance, an employee in one community could serve on the town board if their other role has no decision-making authority. Or when the contact between the two communities is infrequent. In that case, the individual could recuse himself from the occasional vote that might directly place that person in conflict.
Glenville officials need to make sure with these changes that they’re protecting their constituents from genuine conflicts of interest and not just using the changes in the law for political leverage.
Clearer language in the proposed ethics law that more specifically defines the types of positions affected, specifies the types of conflicts that are prohibited, and further defines the meaning of terms like “substantial” conflict and “reasonably expected” to create a conflict would go a long way to easing some of the concerns.
Town officials have an ethical obligation to ensure their ethics law protects citizens, but is also fair and equitable.