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By Susan Gibbs
I have been in county for seven years and reporting on Greene County for six, first for the Greene County Record for five years, and then, after a hiatus that lasted a year, via Eye on Greene. Over the course of these years, I have been impressed with the county’s concern for fiscal responsibility, specifically, its efforts to avoid borrowing to pay its bills and establish a reserve fund.
But at the same time, I have grown more and more concerned with what could easily be termed the “unintended consequences” of depending too heavily on volunteer efforts in order to avoid spending. Over the course of the last several years, some who have started out as volunteers in service to the community, with or without special interests, have risen to – or have been appointed by the Greene County Board of Supervisors to — positions of influence and/or authority.
And yet, it seems to me that with their focus so firmly fixed to the achievement of fiscal viability, county governors have failed to call for accountability from those appointees, and in some cases, have actually lost track of what those appointees are up to.
According to an article on organizational ethics published more than 10 years ago, on December 31, 2002, by the Ethics Research Center, corruption – in both politics and business – is one of the premiere policy issues of the 21st century.
The article, titled “Conflicts of Interest: balancing appearances, intentions and values,” written by Stuart C. Gilman, Ph.D. with Joshua Joseph and Cheryl L. Raven, states: “In recent years, a number of forces have intensified the focus on corruption … One of the most important issues in the fight against corruption is the need to clearly define the conceptual elements that are generally agreed to comprise it. Central among those conceptual elements is the notion of conflict of interest.
“Democracies and free markets absolutely rely on the integrity of their systems for the free flow of information and objective decision-making. Conflicts of interest act as a cancer that eats away at those institutions. Any society that cannot effectively address or prevent conflicts of interest will soon find its democracy and its free markets in states of collapse.”
Eye on Greene believes that observation applies not only to national or state governments, but to local governments as well.
Greene is a small county that experienced rapid growth from about 1975 into the early part of this century. At the beginning of that growth spurt, it could be likened to a small town in that everybody knew everybody by reputation. Residents knew who they could trust and how far, and who they could not trust at all.
But that’s not the case anymore.
Though its population numbers and geographic size might still officially deem it a small county, the recent influx of people from varied backgrounds, with varied educational levels and various interests, Eye on Greene believes, take Greene to another level – where the special interests, motivations, and qualifications of those who would seek – or are in — positions of power must be more closely scrutinized to ensure effective governance.
In the six years that I have been reporting on Greene County, there has been, essentially, only a handful of people sitting on agency boards, at least a few of those serve on multiple boards, and some may have agendas not in keeping with the county’s.
According to Wikipedia, a conflict of interest occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in another.
Eye on Greene is requesting that the Greene County Board of Supervisors start taking long, hard looks at those appointments for the possibility that the motivation for one area of service might have inadvertently corrupted – or could corrupt — another.
In the December 31, 2002 Ethics Research Center article, conflicts of interest are said to be sometimes viewed by those in public administration as solely the province of government, but that there has been a growth of concern regarding conflicts of interest within the private sector.
It notes that research by the Ethics Resource Center suggests that it is not enough for leaders to be good, moral individuals privately.
The writers of the December 31, 2002 article say, “…to effectively understand the application of conflicts of interest to specific situations one must ultimately – implicitly or explicitly – discuss the values that are at the foundation of what we think is wrong with conflicts of interest. The three fundamental values in play are trust, integrity and fairness. Admittedly, these are not as concrete as most policy makers would like. But, they are at base the fundamental concepts that inform the instrumental value – e.g. avoiding conflicts of interest.”
Right now, at this very point in time, the county is at a crossroad: family farms are going away, being replaced by hobby farms and wineries. Government mandates are milking local budgets. Taxes are likely to rise, the public school district is likely to suffer cuts to programs and the county must now turn to economic development for its fiscal survival.
Though in recent years it has experienced some good economic development, it could be said that growth has been experienced in spite of the county.
While the county has designated growth areas, it has never, to Eye on Greene’s knowledge, come up with a plan for what it wants there – and how to get it there.
All sitting supervisors have said, at one time or another, that they favor economic development, but they must now step forward, as a united entity, with a clear and direct message stating that they understand that new economic development will be the life blood for our future. The Board’s policies, procedures, ordinances and direction need to make it absolutely clear that we are indeed a business-friendly community and that we want economic development.
At the same time, it should not be appointing community members to lesser boards who are at variance with that goal, and it should be taking steps to see that its employees either uphold the county’s stated agenda, or are replaced.
Good, effective leadership is essential to getting the county across that road at this time, when everybody no longer knows everybody; when not everyone shares background and experience; and when the door, not properly monitored, is open to the possibility of conflict of interest.
On February 5, an editorial titled “Who’s leading the county?” was posted on the Eye on Greene Web site.
It called attention to the facts that: three members of the Greene County Board of Supervisors took their seats, for the first time, at the beginning of last year; the county administrator resigned last fall; the superintendent of schools is resigning effective this coming May; there are two vacancies, due to recent resignations, on the Greene County Planning Commission; at least three for the same reason, on the Greene County Economic Development Authority; two on the county’s Jefferson Area Board for Aging Advisory Council and its Piedmont Workforce Network Board.
Eye on Greene does not look upon these vacancies as a bad thing. In fact, they are looked upon by this publication as a good thing, in that before filling them, county supervisors are presented with the opportunity to examine resumes, perform in-depth interviews, and check references to ensure there will be no conflicts of interest – or appearances of conflicts of interest — in their appointments.
Agency appointments based on reputations established in a small, close-knit community should be considered no longer acceptable, and part of the county’s history.
The writers of the December 31, 2002 article quote United States Chief Justice Earl Warren as observing: “In civilized life law floats in a sea of ethics. Society would come to grief without ethics which is unenforceable in the courts and cannot be made part of law … There is thus a law beyond the law, as binding on those of us who love our institutions as the law itself, although there is no human power to enforce it. In the law beyond the law, which calls upon each of us to be fair, each of us necessarily is his own Chief Justice. In fact, he is the whole Supreme Court from which there lies no appeal.”
In the coming months, Eye on Greene will be taking a look at volunteer efforts that have formed over the course of the last decade, not with the intent making accusations, but with the intent of examining volunteer efforts that may have given birth to unintentional ethical conflicts of interest, so that supervisors may take steps to correct them.
The taxpayers of Greene County deserve the assurance of its elected leaders that its non-elected officials are holding themselves to the values of trust, integrity and fairness – and that if they are not so holding themselves, they will be asked to step down from one or more positions.
Editor’s note: The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) is a private, nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions. For 89 years ERC has been a resource for institutions committed to a strong ethical culture. To read the article referenced in this post, visit http://www.ethics.org/resource/conflicts-interest-balancing-appearances-intentions-and-values.