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Conflicts of interest erode trust in city government

 

Conflicts of interest exist when people in positions of trust, such as politicians, have competing personal interests which make it difficult to fulfill their duties impartially.

As our city government, comprised of the mayor and city council, routinely rule on issues affecting realtors, builders, developers, and building material suppliers, people in those disciplines should not serve in city government. Since active realtors, builders, and developers are entrenched in elected local offices, we have bad laws which enrich them at the expense of the voters who elected them and all taxpayers and residents.

Christina Walsh of the Castle Coalition, of which I am a member, wrote recently about Clarksville, “Clearly, the confluence of bad law and politically connected developers here does not bode well for the citizens of Clarksville, who have been virtually abandoned by the very political officials they elected to represent their best interests. Local governments very often disguise their intentions of transferring perfectly fine properties to private developers, declaring so-called ‘blight removal,’ ‘urban renewal,’ or ’slum clearance’ as the justification for eminent domain. They hide behind this ‘public use’ concept in their quest to acquire property for the private use of developers.”

The long-range solution to conflicts of interest is voter education. All qualified candidates for local office who receive $1,000 or more in campaign contributions or spend $1,000 or more on their campaigns must file financial disclosures. These disclosures must identify all contributions and expenditures over $100. Since the local newspaper does not publish these public records, I will do so, on Clarksville online, for future elections, as the candidates file their disclosures. I will highlight, for voter scrutiny, all contributions from realtors, builders, developers, and building material suppliers. I will also attempt, with Clarksville online, to vet all qualified candidates, with special attention, again for voter scrutiny, to active realtors, builders, and developers. Hopefully, through this process, we will eventually achieve a city governent that is dedicated to serving the populace rather than itself.


About David Cutting

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3 Responses to “Conflicts of interest erode trust in city government”

  1. EricG Says:
    November 24th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    While I agree with your statements that we need to be more vigilant and aware of the individuals we elect to represent us, I have to disagree with your statement that we should bar developers, real estate agents and the like from the City Council.

    The reason is this.

    The City Council and Mayor regularly make laws that effect every member of our community. It doesn’t matter if your business is Real Estate, Restaurants, retail, service or if you’re employed by someone else’s business. If you live in Clarksville the Mayor and City council of Clarksville make laws that affect you. We certainly can’t bar the entire city from serving, but perhaps instead we should see some strict ethics guidelines implemented.

    1. A conflict of interest should be clearly defined as ANY situation in which a member of the council or mayor stands to make a profit directly or indirectly from an action of the city government.

    2. In the event of a conflict of interest the council member or mayor should remove themself from the voting and discussion process. If they wish to comment on the issue they become subject to the same rules and restrictions as any other citizen.

    3. To help ensure that this is abided by city council members should be required to report all real estate owned and any business interests held in the community.

    4. Punishments for violation of this ethics code should be clearly spelled out in the city charter and should include up to removal from the council and perhaps even have a law codified to allow for a misdemeanor level charge for knowingly participating in an event which creates a conflict of interest.

    Just my two cents on the matter.

    Thanks
    Eric

  2. David Cutting Says:
    November 24th, 2008 at 3:32 pm
    David Cutting

    While I agree with Eric’s suggestions for helping to keep (or make) realtors, builders, and developers who serve as mayors and councilors honest, I must balance it with my many years of privately vetting city councils and county commissions. My experience is that people in these positions, or financially supported by people in these positions, tend to start out poor, with very modest public service salaries (approximately $500 monthly for Clarksville City Councilors) and end up very wealthy, even in cities, unlike ours, with strict ethics laws. On one occasion, I witnessed the then governor of Florida remove, in handcuffs, more than half the members of the Hillsborough County Commission.

    We can work toward implementing all of Eric’s suggestions, but we must still make the voters aware of candidates who are running due to their own personal agendas, rather than for service to the public.

    I will not demean any profession. As a former architect and engineer, I have had many honest friends over the years who were realtors, builders, or developers. However, the overall record of accomplishment for the public good for realtors, builders, and developers who enter elective office has not been good.

  3. David Cutting Says:
    November 25th, 2008 at 10:01 am
    David Cutting

    The suggestion that conflicts of interest should cause council members or the mayor to remove themselves from the voting and discussion process would create a large void without restructuring. Since the mayor, who would need to frequently recluse himself, heads the city council, we would need to remove that duty, and enable the city council to elect its own president.
    Also, since residents of individual wards would not be represented when their councilor recluses, we would need to provide for additional “councilors at large.”
    This would probably work, except for situations when so many councilors would need to recluse themselves from a particular discussion and voting process that we would not have a quorum.

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