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Editorial: Heading off more conflict

When it comes to avoiding any appearance of a conflict of interest, elected and appointed bodies should err on the side of caution, especially where public tax dollars are involved. That not only protects the integrity of the governing process; it also helps protect those who serve on boards and agencies from being caught up in the kind of controversy that flared this week involving the Rowan Jobs Initiative.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted to withhold all county funding from RJI, citing concerns that the non-profit agency had paid for services performed by the Miller Davis marketing agency while the agency’s owner, Mike Miller, served on the RJI board. The commission made no suggestion that the money going to Miller Davis had been mishandled or misspent, it should be clear. The concern was about the appearance of conflict, not any actual malfeasance. In fact, part of the reason this became an issue when it did is that RJI’s budget documentation includes a detailed list of its outlays, including those made to Miller’s firm.
In some instances, appearances of conflict arise because boards or governing bodies don’t recognize a potential problem. However, according to both Miller and Skip Wood, president of the RJI board, that isn’t the case here. Wood says that RJI used Miller Davis only “after discussing and containing any potential conflict of interest,” and Miller recused himself from any votes related to contracts involving his firm. By their account, the board made a good-faith effort to follow ethical procedures and avoid the very predicament in which they now find themselves, although it doesn’t appear that included consulting the commission or county attorney to make sure their actions passed muster. And the transactions were public record, available for anyone who cared to look.
If RJI’s board believed it had done its due diligence in avoiding a conflict, that raises a question about stripping away its county funding. As stewards of the county budget, commissioners have an obligation to oversee how tax dollars are spent, and that obligation includes being vigilant for potential conflicts of interest in any expenditures. But as Commission Chairman Arnold Chamberlain noted, the commissioners themselves aren’t entirely blameless. While the county commission has liaisons that work with and advise other boards, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Some closer monitoring and better communication could have headed off this turmoil. If the commissioners bear some responsibility, is it fair to make RJI bear the full cost?
The RJI’s Wood has expressed optimism that his board can bring some clarity to the issue at the county commission’s next meeting. Let’s hope that’s the case. The county needs collaboration between public and private entities as part of its drive to create new jobs and boost the economy. It also needs to conduct its business with full transparency and high ethical standards. Those two goals shouldn’t be in conflict.

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