Government conflict of interest policies are the right move

Northern Michigan is made up of many small, close-knit communities. It’s one of the many reasons people choose to live here.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for your child’s teacher to be married to your doctor; or your co-worker to be close friends with your neighbor. The examples go on and on.

Often these close connections are a positive attribute of living in a small community, but sometimes it can also be problematic.

That’s especially true when it comes to government.

Living in these small, close-knit communities, it’s even more likely than in more highly populated areas, that sooner or later a conflict of interest — or at least the appearance of one — will arise involving an appointed or elected government official.

In Northern Michigan, because of the small size of our population, no area governmental boards, councils or commissions are full-time jobs. That means in many cases people who serve on these public bodies have jobs and business interests outside of their public service roles.

None of us live in a vacuum. Just because a person serves as a government official — appointed or elected — doesn’t take away his or her standing as a private citizen with personal interests.

Since these situation are bound to crop up sooner or later, we think it would be wise for all municipalities and governmental bodies to draft and implement some kind of conflict of interest policy.

As a prime example of this, the Charlevoix City Council for months has been dealing with a situation in which it has repeatedly been wrestling with the issue of whether the city’s mayor has a conflict of interest in matters that the council is considering and what should be done if such a situation does arise.

Earlier this year, the council considered an ethics policy that would have more clearly defined these situation, but the measure failed on a split vote, in part because some council members had concerns about the proposed policy prohibiting a council member who has recused himself or herself from the matter from speaking from the audience as a private citizen.

Conflict of interest issues can be complicated, and addressing them in the form of a policy or ordinance might take some time and cost some money in legal fees, but in the long run it will ultimately save boards and commissions time and added legal expenses when situations crop up in the future.

Recently, the Harbor Springs City Council approved a measure to bring consistency to the attendance and conflict of interest policies among the city’s various bodies.

As reported in a recent News-Review story, under the new policy, members would be required to disclose any personal benefit, impact or association that they would have in connection with a matter which a board or commission is considering. Members would need to abstain from deliberations or voting in matters where they would not be impartial, or when there is an appearance that the member is not impartial.

We think this is a move in the right direction.

We all want government officials to be acting in the best interest of their constituents. Having policies in place that reduce the chances that someone might have other motives behind his or her official actions is the right move to make.