What defines conflict of interest?

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By The Staff

Conflict of interest, noun. The circumstance of a public officeholder, business executive, or the like, whose personal interests might benefit from his or her official actions or influence.

Note use of the word “might.” Not definitely, not guaranteed. Just “might.”

Might is a powerful word. It is the reason ethics codes are created — to prevent situations in which unethical behavior “might” occur. The behavior doesn’t have to exist. Only the perception of it.

However, it’s not the definition the La Grange Ethics Commission used to clear City Engineer David Garber from any wrongdoing in a recent complaint from resident Jack Lockery. Members don’t care whether the perception exists. They have cleared Garber on a technicality in the city’s ethics code — one, in our opinion, that’s dangerous to use.

Here’s a little history. Lockery claims Garber has a conflict of interest because he is being paid by the city for engineering consultant services while also being paid for the same services by a developer building a subdivision near Zhale Smith Road. Lockery learned about this issue when he contacted Garber earlier this year in his capacity as city engineer to inquire about work on the development being halted. Lockery claims he later received an angry phone call from the developer, Scott Chapman of Summit Parks Development, who had been informed by Garber about Lockery’s dissatisfaction with the project.

Garber is being paid by the city of La Grange for his services as an engineering consultant. He’s not on the payroll; he invoices the city each month as a contractor. In the 2008-09 budget, the city allots $48,000 for such a service, and Mayor Elsie Carter told The Era Garber cannot invoice more than $4,000 a month.

His unofficial title is “city engineer.” The Era has obtained documents Garber signed in this fashion. Yet when asked about his role, Garber and Carter say he is not officially the city’s engineer — he only provides consulting services on a contractual basis.

It is for this reason that the city’s ethics commission — which we had no idea existed and to our knowledge has not heard an ethics complaint in its 10-plus year existence — OK’d Garber’s work with the city. Because he is not a salaried employee, members agreed (though not unanimously) he is not in violation of the city’s ethics code.

The perception, however, is that in his role as city engineer, contracted or otherwise, Garber could be responsible for enforcing regulations with respect to development in the city. We’d like to know that for sure. However, our open records request submitted last week to obtain a list of services Garber provides to the city has not been honored yet, as Carter said city hall is short-staffed and not able to get it to us within the three days the state’s open records law provides for such requests.

Still, the perception exists. If Garber is paid by the city to enforce city ordinances while also being paid for consulting services by a developer of a project inside city limits, the ability for him to look the other way if violations occurred might exist.

Note the use of the word “might.”

La Grange City Council must immediately conduct a thorough review of its ethics code and process for review. Contract employees of the city should be subject to codes governing ethical behavior. We find it laughable that the council’s elected members were not aware until last week who the members of the ethics commission are. It’s even more laughable that during last week’s council meeting, the mayor removed one of those commission members because her term expired — six years ago.

We’ll end with a quote from Judge-Executive Duane Murner, who wrote a letter to Carter July 28 recommending Garber relinquish his role as city engineer or agree not to accept private engagements within city limits:

“I believe that David Garber is in a conflict situation since he holds himself out to the public as city engineer, while serving as engineer for Summit Park. I further believe that his exact employment relationship — independent contractor, part-time employee, or consultant — with the city is irrelevant to the conflict issue.”

We couldn’t agree more. La Grange City Council is doing its residents a terrible disservice if it allows negative perception to exist. It creates distrust in government, and that’s the last thing this council needs.

The views expressed in this editorial are endorsed by the five members of The Oldham Era’s editorial board.