The TASC List: Conflicted interests

Over the past several years, there has been talk in Fairfield County about business practices, ethical agreements, and other protocols that describe individual conduct and behaviors.
Every organization strives to outline the proper approach to performing on the job in situations where complexity and uncertainty may be associated with the right thing to do. Wilton is no different. This issue is not an exact science. When one constructs behavioral guidelines the important questions are often found in those undefined and fuzzy gray areas that lie between the black and white of the wrong and right.
From the largest corporate entities to the smallest departments in retail operations, the guidelines are often themselves blurred, if in fact they are stated at all. In the final analysis, people are left to decide for themselves the appropriate direction to take. Often it doesn’t occur to them at all that there may be significant exposure to an action ranging from mild embarrassment to criminal complaint.
The normal rule of thumb is that if an action could possibly result in “the appearance of wrongdoing” by itself, then it should be avoided, for mere “appearance” can produce the very same unfavorable outcome.
This sort of judgmental weight falls heavily upon the individual and the enterprise. What follows are some examples of potential conflict situations. You be the judge.
1) As a town employee you receive complimentary tickets to a major sporting event from a supplier of goods and services, presumably acquired through the competitive bid process. Should you accept them?
2) You are a department head whose operations require the purchase of a land parcel for additional storage purposes. Your brother-in-law currently owns property that almost exactly fits the requirements. Should he be invited to enter the acquisition process that you will supervise to reach a decision?
3) As a school teacher you purchased with school funds a supply of three-ring binders for 20 student projects at $6.99 apiece. The class size reached only 19. At year end you’d like to give your niece the remaining one, since she will enter a similar program at another school the following year. Should you? And what about pencils, erasers, and pads that cost 79 cents for one unit?
4) The town is paving the street you live on using a large subcontracted firm that regularly repaves and reconditions local community roads. Your driveway feeds into the street. The driveway needs some repair about 90 feet away from the roadway that will take only one cubic yard of material. Work is finished for the day and the material left over seems to fit your needs. Should you ask the workers to dump it on your property?
5) You sit on a board that is considering the selection of an engineering design firm for a large contract. One of the candidates is publicly owned and your family has a large number of its shares. Should you exempt yourself from the decision?  What if your sister’s ex-husband is the chief operating officer?
6) You are the high school football coach and one of your player’s parents needs an immediate and expensive operation for which the family has no resources. You have access to a Boosters’ Athletic Fund to support the team and underwrite team dinners and award functions. Should you borrow from this fund, with the intention of paying back in full, to satisfy the medical expenses?
7) You are on the town Planning and Zoning Commission and become aware of a proposed landfill deal that will, if completed, seriously jeopardize the value of adjacent properties. Two of those owners are good friends. Can you advise them of the potential financial impact so as to afford them time to sell at a high price?
You are probably aware of many more questions like this in the real world. TASC would like to see every town employee and every school district teacher/staffer sign an ethics agreement for the record. Structuring the text for that document will not eliminate conflicts nor allow for guidance on the many situations that may occur. But it should go a long way toward deterring poor judgment, minimizing difficult circumstances and outcomes, and avoiding those damaging and depleting occasions where, after the fact, decisions are determined to have been poorly made. Such an effort will prove rewarding to all.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: