Maybe it’s the Live Free or Die philosophy gone haywire, but the State of New Hampshire does not have an ethics code or disciplinary mechanism for local officials. That’s left to individual municipalities, and many have none.
Even in towns with written ethics codes, it’s not uncommon to hear a local official take a swipe at the code and question both its validity and necessity. And when voters approve an ethics code, it often is missing any enforcement mechanism, putting its effectiveness in doubt.
We don’t agree with the viewpoint that anything goes, and that officials know when to recuse themselves when a potential conflict or appearance of conflict of interest exists. Indeed, some officials are quick to say the alleged conflict is none of anyone’s business.
If an official has a conflict of interest, that does not mean he or she is bad or committed wrongdoing. A conflict can be as simple and unavoidable as being a relative to someone who could benefit from a board action. Recusing oneself is not an admission of guilt. Instead, it makes clear to everyone that a potential conflict could exist.
Nevertheless, this month we had local officials leveling charges of “witch hunt” against a Sandown Planning Board member who raised the possibility of a conflict of interest on the part of another member. At that same meeting, Sandown Selectman Hans Nicolaisen said, “ethics depends on whether anything wrong was done.”
No it doesn’t. An ethics code doesn’t change with the wind. There’s no question that in small towns, it’s hard to avoid conflicts. But that doesn’t mean a code of ethics is irrelevant.
While Sandown is in the hot seat right now, ethical quandaries crop up in every town. And attacking an ethics code begs the question of what someone is trying to hide.
It’s easy to allege “politics” behind every request for recusal. That’s way too facile. The only way to conduct the public’s business in as bias-free a manner as possible is to be as transparent as possible. That’s why public meetings are broadcast over local cable access.
We wonder why anyone holding public office or appointment would be uncomfortable acknowledging a potential conflict or the appearance of one. It doesn’t lead to automatic recusal. But it does make public what otherwise could stay hidden from residents both on and off the board.
In public life, appearances count. When residents don’t know what their representatives are up to, they listen to rumors and conspiracy theories and end up distrusting the decision makers. That helps no one. Honesty and openness are the better policies.