Ethics issues take stage
Town candidates differ on what they consider conflicts of interest that warrant recusal.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: July 30, 2008
Jackson Town Council candidate John Bickner Jr. said he does not see any conflict in voting on issues that affect property he owns, including zone changes of his neighborhood or proposals for pathways that could bisect his land.
Candidate Louise Lasley, who is the public lands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said she sees no conflict in voting on most Alliance proposals that could come before the town, including the recently proposed moratorium on planned mixed-use developments.
The nine candidates for two open seats on the Jackson Town Council were asked to define conflict of interest and to state how they would deal with potential conflicts – such as real estate transactions or involvement in nonprofit groups that may have dealings before the town – if they are elected to join the council.
Though Wyoming statute defines conflicts of interest for elected officials as those decisions from which an official will receive direct monetary benefit, some candidates said they believe it extends further than that and should include benefit to organizations that a councilor is involved in.
At the same time, many pointed out that it is impossible, in a town the size of Jackson, not to have any connections at all with nonprofit groups, developers or businesses with proposals before the town.
One issue central to the debate is defining when someone has a conflict and the importance of the conflict being real or perceived.
“To me, it is when you have been influenced to the point where you can no longer be fair, impartial and unbiased,” incumbent Mark Obringer said. “I think my record stands for itself, but perception is everything.”
Lasley also said conflicts, because of the size of Jackson, could extend beyond the legal definition.
“I am aware of some of the rumors and concerns in our community about conflict of interest,” she said. “My personal definition has always been that you have financial gain from some transaction, but for this community it might extend to boards you might sit on or businesses you are involved in.”
Candidate Tommy Wood also said he would extend it to “personal monetary gain or a gain for an organization, friend or family member that is close to the elected official.”
Matt Lee said the definition should be expanded to include benefits that may not be monetary.
Candidates Kyle Burson, Abe Tabatabai, and Greg Miles all said they thought the state’s definition was sufficient.
Real estate and the council: As the value of real estate in the valley escalates, real estate transactions often draw the most scrutiny and can be the most controversial. Some members of the Jackson Planning Commission have gone so far as to recuse themselves from consideration of properties that they have sold, even if they are not involved in their subsequent development.
Bickner, who owns residential property and is involved in a corporation that owns commercial property, said he did not see a problem in voting on proposals that could directly affect the development potential of his land.
“An upzone, sure, or the same thing if it was my property that was being down-zoned. I would feel equally comfortable [voting] if that was the case,” he said, saying he would also be comfortable voting on plans for pathways that could impact his property. “I believe in property owners’ rights.”
Obringer, who owns a home, said he would vote on some broad changes that would affect his property, “but it would depend on the magnitude of the change.”
Tabatabai echoed Obringer’s sentiment.
“If they have a reason for it and have logic behind it, I don’t see why not,” he said. “I don’t see it as a conflict.”
Lee owns a townhome and a small stake in a commercial property downtown, he said. He would refrain from voting on development proposals for his property but said he could not recuse himself from comprehensive proposals that could affect his property such as changes to planned mixed-use development regulations or revamping of commercial zoning districts.
“I would be reluctant to not vote on those types of things because they are absolutely critical issues affecting the community,” he said. “To recuse myself from more general votes that would impact a property that I have a 3 percent interest in, I feel that would kind of violate the public trust and my reasons for being elected.”
Wood and Burson do not own property in Jackson, but both said they would commit to not buying property in projects they approved until they were available to the general public for at least a month, an idea forwarded by Teton County Commission candidate Rick Roth.
Miles said he would recuse himself from a vote that would affect his property if he felt there was a definite conflict of interest, as defined by Wyoming statute and would step down from voting on development proposals if he thought there was a chance he might be involved in a real estate transaction made possible by a development application before the council.
“If I were in negotiations to purchase a piece of property that was part of a project or a development proposal that came in front of the Town Council for a vote, I would recuse myself from the vote,” he said. “If I were unsure of a potential conflict, I would consult with the town attorney.”
Lasley, who owns a home, would not vote on proposals that only affected her property but would on broad efforts that included her parcel.
“A single request, I can see that, but if we are broadly trying to reform and upgrade zoning I have hard time seeing that a councilor would recuse themselves,” she said.
Work and the council: Another potential conflict can arise when candidates whose jobs outside the council overlap with council business.
Lasley said she has been asked by constituents how she would deal with proposals from the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance but she does not think she needs to recuse herself unless she directly worked on the proposal. In the last year, the Alliance has requested a moratorium on planned mixed-used developments in the town.
“I don’t consider that a business proposal – that is an advocacy proposal,” she said. “The Alliance would not have gained financially either way.”
The Alliance often has opposed large developments in town, including Pine Glades and the redevelopment of the Painted Buffalo.
“If the Alliance happened to propose legal text to be adopted for, say, the [land development regulations] or something similar, I would probably recuse myself from that because I might have been involved peripherally in writing those, but if they are advocating a position anyone in the community could have I don’t see it necessary to recuse myself,” Lasley said.
Obringer, who runs Precision Builders, said he has not built a new project in more than five years and would not build a project he had helped approve.
“I have never built anything for anyone that came through the process ever,” he said. He noted that it would be impossible for him not to do smaller maintenance work on projects that have been before the council.
Lee is part owner of Teton Heritage Builders but said he is no longer involved with the day-to-day operations of the business. Lee said he would recuse himself from voting on a development if Teton Heritage Builders had already been approached to work on it, but if the company were approached after the vote it would be more problematic.
“I am not a real active participant in the company, and I would hate to tie the hands of my business partners from going after something in the town,” he said. “If, on the rare occasion that someone approached Teton Heritage Builders after the fact, I would approach it on a case-by-case basis.”
Wood, who works for the Community Resource Center, and peripherally with The Latino Service Network and other subgroups of the Teton County Systems of Care, said he would likely recuse himself from voting on any funding for the organizations but would still participate in the discussions before the vote.
Bickner, who is involved in a downtown business, said he did not see any conflict in voting on regulations that could impact downtown businesses, such as parking regulations.
Tabatabai, who works for Teton County School District No. 1, said he felt comfortable voting on issues that involve the school.
“There are so many of those [issues] come before the council that have no conflict of interest, and if I was going to step down I would be sitting at home all the time,” he said. “These are tough decisions, and I have confidence in those on the board and the candidates and those that have run before me to make them.”
Volunteering and the council:Involvement in nonprofit groups, especially sitting on the board of directors of a group, was raised as a potential conflict of interest earlier this year. Members of South Park Neighbors accused the late County Commissioner Bill Paddleford of having a conflict because he sat on the board of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust. The Housing Trust was a partner in the Teton Meadows Ranch proposal and stood to garner revenue if the proposal was approved. Inclusion of Teton Meadows Ranch in moratorium on development of large parcels in the county rendered the point moot.
Most candidates said they would not stop their involvement with nonprofit organizations but would recuse themselves if an organization they were involved in came before the council.
Lasley serves on the board of the state group Wyoming Wilderness Association and the national group Wilderness Watch, both organizations that are unlikely to have business before the council, she said.
Miles is the president of the South Millward Townhomes Homeowners Association and said he would recuse himself if the association came before the council.
Burson sits on the board of Teton Adaptive Sports but said he would sign a pledge not to hold a board position on an organization with business before the town.
Lee sits on the board of Habitat for Humanity, and said he would be reluctant to relinquish his position.
“I consider that a selling point rather than a conflict of interest,” he said. “I wear my heart on my sleeve and Habitat hasn’t gotten any money from the town.”
Habitat for Humanity has not developed any property itself, instead it partners with other organizations to build housing after it has already been approved, Lee said.
“The Habitat mission is good for this community,” he said “I feel as though if it came down to Habitat for Humanity I would be comfortable voting on something that is directly impacting Habitat.”
Obringer, Tabatabai, Wood, Bickner, said they do not hold any positions with nonprofit or other organizations.
Of those, only Wood said he would pledge not to accept a board position with a nonprofit group, while the others thought it could be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Tim Sullivan could not be reached for comment.