By Michael Howell
The Stevensville Town Council discussed two possible conflicts of interest at its last meeting on September 12. One was an alleged conflict of interest made by Councilor Robin Holcomb concerning the Mayor and a potential contract for services, the other was an alleged conflict of interest on the part of Councilor Robin Holcomb having to do with her relationship with the Stevensville Main Street Association. This allegation was raised in a letter to the Council from the Bitterroot Star.
Mayor Gene Mim Mack told the council that he felt obliged to seek legal direction from Town Attorney Brian West following allegations made against him by Councilor Robin Holcomb when she voted against approving the town’s budget, giving as one reason a conflict of interest involving the mayor. He said that as soon as he received the letter from the Bitterroot Star concerning Holcomb he forwarded it to the attorney as well and notified Holcomb of the allegations.
In the letter, the newspaper publishers state that Holcomb has for several years sold “Pot of Gold” raffle tickets for the Main Street Association, keeping a portion of every ticket sold for her personal use. They refer to Montana law and state that “a conflict of interest exists when an officer of a government entity stands to gain personally as a result of the outcome of a vote.”
“It appears that Ms. Holcomb should abstain from voting on matters of financial support for the Main Street Association. At the very least she should have disclosed to the Council that she has a conflict of interest,” they wrote.
The Town’s FY 2014 budget included setting aside about $13,000 for administration of the Town’s water and sewer projects and, at a preliminary budget meeting, included discussion of possibly hiring the mayor to perform the services since he was already doing the work. Holcomb called this a conflict of interest and refused to approve the budget on those and other grounds involving the Main Street Association. The budget also included an allocation of $5,000 for economic development services. That contract would most likely go to the Main Street Association which holds the current contract for providing those services. Holcomb cited this as a second reason that she could not vote in favor of the budget since she cannot approve giving the organization any money.
Town Attorney Brian West gave the Council a brief overview of the laws dealing with conflict of interest without addressing the question of whether either individual in question actually had a conflict of interest. He said that the law provided for the selection of a panel to make such determinations. He did say, however, that since the matters in question involved general budget allocations and did not make specific awards or contracts, that it would be premature to determine if any conflicts of interest actually existed.
Holcomb first addressed the letter from the newspaper saying, “I just want you to know that the club allowed people to take money for selling tickets. But I want you to know in the past that I have not taken money. I have never… I won’t say never…in the past I did not take all the money. When you say ‘the one who could benefit from the vote’, I’m the one who voted against giving money to Main Street. But I never said we can’t help each other… When you say at the very least I should have explained to the Council that I had a conflict of interest, if I had known, I would not have partaken in the Pot of Gold ticket sales,” said Holcomb. She said that as a board member of the Civic Club she had always thought she should abstain from voting on matters related to the club, but was told that it was OK. She reiterated that if she had known she was creating a conflict of interest with the Main Street Association she would not have done it.
Councilor Bill Perrin said that it seemed to him that the law requires government officials to report if they are taking a gift worth over $50 because it could be a conflict of interest.
Former councilmember and present candidate for mayor, Clayton Floyd, said based on his research that “there has to be potential for financial gain for there to be a conflict of interest by control of your vote.” He said a vote in favor of the budget might be construed as a conflict of interest but Holcomb voted against it. He said as a person she was just offering a service that the Main Street Association asked for.
“The subject of the vote wasn’t Robin Holcomb or whether she got any money,” said Floyd. “It was Main Street. So I think it’s a logical extension that the subject of the vote ought to be what you are looking at and Robin had no control over nor could she gain by her vote on the budget.”
Floyd said that the matter of the Mayor’s potential conflict of interest, on the other hand, was questionable.
“There is $13,000 sitting there that someone is going to get paid,” said Floyd. “If not the mayor, then someone else will. I think that is a financial incentive. Maybe not now, as Mr. West said, but when you decide to expend it, it will. You better think about that real closely.”
Floyd also claimed that there was a law limiting the compensation an elected official can get.
In fact, Montana law allows the Council to set a mayor’s compensation without mention of any limit.
Councilor Bill Perrin said that in his opinion taking over $50 from Main Street would constitute a conflict of interest that could influence the outcome of a vote , whether in a positive or a negative way.
“If you voted no in order not to have a conflict of interest it still influences your vote,” Perrin said.
Councilor Ron Klaphake said that the situation with the Main Street Association was similar to that with the mayor. He said the money had only been allocated for a use and that no contract had yet been made with Main Street or with the mayor.
Town Attorney West said that if a conflict of interest exists it must be disclosed, even if it does not sway the outcome of a person’s vote.
Victoria Howell, publisher of the Bitterroot Star, said, “When you become a member of a Town Council your conduct is really important. You are held to a higher standard. I think it’s important for a council member to know what a conflict of interest might be. My reading of the law is that you just have to say it. Then it can be discussed and decided after that, and that wasn’t done here.”
Howell acknowledged that the potential contract with Main Street was not in the budget, but said that Councilor Holcomb had made it clear that her vote on the budget was related to her belief that it was giving money to Main Street. She said that Holcomb could conceivably benefit from more ticket sales for Main Street fund raisers if the organization was required to raise more donations as a result of the loss of the contract with the town.
“It’s just a potential scenario,” she said, “but that’s the reason that these things need to be talked about in the open. A public official needs to know what the law is and what code of conduct needs to be followed in regards to the law.”
Jim Tadvick questioned the motivation of the allegations against Holcomb.
“Something smells rotten in Denmark,” he said. “Robin votes against Main Street and two weeks later you (a Main Street Board member) find a conflict of interest?” He suggested that the allegations were politically motivated. Earlier in the evening Clayton Floyd, candidate for mayor, also stated that Main Street members were acting politically prior to elections and that it was illegal. He did not specify any particular infractions of the law or by whom.
Council candidate Jim Crews said the issue had to do with making a profit. He asked Holcomb if she made enough selling tickets to pay for her time.
Holcomb answered, saying, “No.” She added, “All I can say is if I would have known, I wouldn’t have done it.”
The Council took no action on the issues.