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, it’s left to individual municipalities, and many do not have one.
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. When voters approve an ethics code, it often is missing any enforcement mechanism, putting its effectiveness in doubt, an ethics committee.
We don’t agree with the viewpoint that anything goes, and that officials know when to recues 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.
And 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. Recuing oneself is not an admission of guilt. Instead, it makes clear to everyone that a potential conflict could exist.
Nevertheless, there will always be local official screaming “witch hunt” that raises the possibility of a conflict of interest on in an of it self what are they hiding. It has been said, “ethics depends on against 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, unless you have an ethics committee to enforce it.
Weather someone is in the hot seat right now or not, 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.