The One-Way Conflict of Interest


Regulation of elections and elected officials can be a worthwhile control on corruption, but as with anything, there’s a downside on which we have to keep an eye.  Yes, transparency is great, but the more rules we layer on a civic activity, the more challenging it will be for non-insiders to participate.  Powerful people will find ways to profit from their power that avoid the legal pitfalls, while the grassroots folks who want to spread some of that power get tangled up.

I personally know of people who’ve decided not to volunteer to help out their communities, or have left volunteer offices, because they didn’t want to be burdened with disclosing every investment in their portfolios.  After a few fees for missing a campaign finance deadline, some people figure it just isn’t worth it.

When citizen volunteers do get into office, they can find the various complaint processes to be a game of Gotcha! rather than a transparency tool.  Even if every decision and agenda item is perfectly within line, complaints are free and easy to the filer and costly to the official, enabling murmurs about unethical government.

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That’s why the parenthetical note in this Providence Journal article on union fights in Johnston may be the most important part:

On April 17, union negotiators said they wouldn’t take the health-care proposals to their members, which the town “recognized as a bad-faith negotiating tactic,” according to the complaint. By April 25 the union filed for mediation.

On Thursday, Johnston Town Solicitor William Conley, who is also the state Senate Finance Committee chairman, told The Journal the suit was not related to the continuing-contacts [sic] bill, which the General Assembly passed May 8 and Mayor Joseph Polisena and other municipal officials warned would give unions more bargaining leverage.

“That meeting was even before the continuing contract legislation passed,” Conley said. (Conley recused himself from voting on the continuing contracts bill in the Senate.) “When they filed for mediation, we thought that was premature. We want to bargain in good faith and we hope that the lawsuit will act as a catalyst to continuing good-faith bargaining.”

Kathryn Gregg included the same parenthetical in an article from some weeks ago, connecting Conley’s recusal from the non-recusal of National Education Association organizer — and state senator —Valarie Lawson on the same topic.  A cynic might suggest that Senator Conley was mostly using the Code of Ethics as an excuse not to weigh in on a controversial issue, but whatever his reason, a rule that only applies to one side of a political question is the farthest thing from open and fair government.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Elected officials recusing themselves is not a step to be taken lightly, and should only be done in blatant conflicts — like with Valerie Lawson

    When a Judge recuses, someone steps in and takes their place. But when a rep or senator does it their constituents are effectively disenfranchised

    To me it duzn’t seem that Conley met that higher burden and as suggested just used it as a way to avoid a controversial vote

    • Rhett Hardwick

      More reason to consider their “connections” at election time. I can recall a time when all but one member of the Foxboro, MA boards worked for the Foxboro Company.