Passing ‘smell test’

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 30, 2007

When it comes to the “smell test” in potential conflicts of interest, there are a couple of possible strategies. You can either take a deep breath and address the issue head on or hold your nose and hope the smell quietly fades away.
It should be clear that the questions about the propriety of County Assessor Robert “Jerry” Rowland doing private real estate appraisal work in Rowan County aren’t quietly going away. If anything, the smell has gotten stronger with the disclosure that experts at the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill apparently have never rendered an opinion that Rowland’s in-county private work doesn’t constitute a conflict of interest with his official county duties. That contradicts what some county officials have previously said. Coupled with the fact that neighboring counties don’t allow their assessors to do private appraisal work in the jurisdictions where they’re getting a public paycheck, it also underscores the shaky ground Rowland holds in claiming there’s no potential conflict of interest here.
It’s important to underscore the word “potential.” No one is suggesting that Rowland has done anything dishonest or underhanded. That’s the thing about the “smell test.” If a situation has the appearance of conflict, the smell arises ó and ignoring it won’t make it go away. That’s why county commissioners recuse themselves from any votes that might affect their personal business and why judges distance themselves from cases where they have a prior connection to those involved.
There’s a simple solution here; Obviously, Rowland could agree that, as long as he holds his official post, he won’t perform private appraisals in Rowan County. That wouldn’t be an acknowledgment of wrongdoing; it would simply acknowledge that people who hold positions such as his can’t afford to be in situations that create the perception that a conflict exists.
Barring that, county commissioners need to step in and take care of the issue. It may be, as Rowland has mentioned, that any policy changes need to be broad enough to cover the secondary work of all county employees. In fact, such a broad review isn’t a bad idea, and it might help head off other conflicts of interest from arising in the future.