People often casually use the term “conflict of interest” without truly understanding what that means. Case in point, Stevensville Town Councilmember Robin Holcomb who recently voted against approval of the town budget, citing as one reason the mayor’s “conflict of interest” in allocating funds for future work that could potentially be performed by the mayor. (In fact, MCA 7-4-4201 gives town councils full authority to set their own salaries and that of the mayor.) The mayor was directed by the council to include this in the budget, the mayor did not vote on the budget, and this is clearly NOT a conflict of interest.
On the other hand, in response to a letter submitted by the Bitterroot Star, Councilmember Holcomb acknowledged at the September 12 council meeting that she had received financial compensation for selling raffle tickets as a fundraiser for the Stevensville Main Street Association. While her efforts to help that organization are to be applauded, she needed to disclose this to the council. This is potentially a REAL conflict of interest as defined in Montana law. A conflict of interest exists when there is a perception that a public official stands to benefit financially from a decision.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a conflict of interest for a town council member to volunteer for a non-profit organization, such as the Civic Club, and then vote on issues concerning the Civic Club. Many of the council members of a small town belong to a variety of non-profit community service organizations, such as the American Legion, community foundations, chambers of commerce, etc. If the community service work doesn’t involve personal financial gain to the individual member, then there is no conflict of interest. A conflict of interest is about money, about personal gain.
Not only that, even when a conflict of interest may exist, the important thing is full disclosure. The official with the perceived conflict of interest must simply state what that conflict might be. For example, one of our current county commissioners is a real estate agent. When an issue comes up that has the potential to impact his business, such as the recently approved regulations concerning property for lease or rent, he simply declares ahead of the vote that he may have a conflict of interest. Then, if he believes it will not affect his decision, he votes if he wants to. His fellow commissioners can choose whether or not to challenge him in regard to his conflict of interest, or they can choose to do nothing at all. The essential point of the law is to bring things out into the open.
When the Bitterroot Star brought this issue to the council’s attention, Councilmember Holcomb said that if she had known, she wouldn’t have done it. Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a defense. Montana’s Local Government Center regularly provides workshops on ethics at its training sessions for public officials. Surely in her four or five years on the council, Councilmember Holcomb has received this training.
We know that Councilmember Holcomb’s heart is in the right place. However, if she wants to serve the community of Stevensville for another term, she needs to strengthen her understanding of the law and of her role and responsibilities as an elected official and, next time, bring up any conflicts of interest for discussion before the vote.