When it comes to conflicts of interest in government, a good rule of thumb to follow is that if there's a chance someone might perceive your action as questionable, then you probably shouldn't do it.
That's what Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen should have concluded when she met with Saratoga Hospital officials about a possible private grant-writing work, outside of her job as the city's part-time, $14,500-a-year mayor.
Had she done that initially, she would have avoided the dust-up that prompted three members of the City Council to censure her during Tuesday's City Council meeting.
At issue are two matters -- the first issue dovetailing into the second.
First, the mayor had had discussions with Saratoga Hospital officials to do some private consulting work. Yepsen has a 30-year career in marketing and development, and she's done work for the hospital in the past.
The discussions apparently came at the same time the City Council was considering a zoning variance for the hospital's plan to construct a $14 million medical office building north of its main campus near a residential area.
The city's ethics law states that "officers and/or employees shall not engage in, solicit, negotiate for or promise to accept work for an outside employer or business who does business with the City which creates an implied conflict with or impairs the proper discharge of his official duties or results in personal gain."
Seems pretty clear. But the term, "who does business with the City," can be interpreted different ways. Does going before a city board for a zoning change constitute "doing business with the city," or must the entity actually provide or receive a service under a direct business relationship with the city.
The mayor says she consulted the Ethics Board, which led to her and the hospital suspending their talks for consulting work.
Yepsen is entitled to have a private career. But as mayor, she should have avoided any kind of private business relationship with the hospital, since there was always the potential for her to use her authority and influence to affect the hospital's business.
The second issue in this is that when the project came up for a vote, Yepsen recused herself over this alleged conflict. That came on the advice of the Ethics Board. Her recusal, combined with other factors, resulted in the council not granting the zoning variance for the project.
Her decision angered some on the council who felt the recusal wasn't necessary and was done deliberately by Yepsen to scuttle the hospital project, which neighbors opposed.
Given all that transpired, the council's decision to censure the mayor seems more out of retribution for her recusal than any clear ethics violation, which the mayor seems to have taken steps to avoid, albeit a little after the fact.
If one can interpret the ethics law in different ways, how is the mayor guilty of violating it and therefore deserving of a formal reprimand?
Yes, the language in the ethics law needs to be clarified. That would help.
But what would help more would be for politicians to do a better job recognizing when they might be wading into a potential conflict and doing all they can to avoid it in the first place.