Appearance

of conflict important, too

This is a real story that happened in Wisconsin, but not Waunakee. A contractor hosts a potluck with the public employees they work with, and every one brings a dish to pass and the contractor pays for the meat. A few days later the public employees are told that to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, those that attended the potluck should pay $5 each to cover the cost of the meat. Said public employees were insulted since they were hourly employees and had no influence in contract decisions. It felt like their integrity was being questioned.

The explanation for paying for the cost of the meat was that even though the public employees know that they have no power to influence contracts, how would it look if the paper got hold of the story and it read something like, “X contractor hosts lunch for public employees who work for the department that awards the public contract?” Even though the public employees legally could receive a nominal value item, the appearance of a conflict of interest or bribery would undermine the public’s trust.

Also it would reflect poorly on the contractor who hosted the potluck if there were concerns that they had done something to sway the agency’s opinion outside of the bidding process.

It’s something to think about as the village president correctly stated that he has no legal obligation to recuse himself. But the appearance of a conflict of interest leaves the door open for questions of favoritism and possible lawsuits if favoritism is perceived. To address that concern, I hope Chris Zellner recuses himself from any discussion or votes involving his employer. I am not questioning his integrity, just pointing out that the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines public trust.

Linda Ashmore

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