Hidden agendas vs. full disclosure

Hidden agendas vs. full disclosure

I’ve been hearing a lot about “ulterior motives” and “conflicts of interest” lately. I was used to dealing with these “challenges” on a daily basis with my fellow Corporados, but I would certainly like to keep them to an absolute minimum in this nice little town, as they usually lead to nothing good.

Now, as far as our local government officials are concerned, the only way a conflict of interest exists is apparently when the official has a personal gain from furthering the competing interest in question, in which case he or she abstains and usually does not participate in the decision. When I was a member of the municipal budget committee, my colleagues always diligently recused themselves or abstained from voting when such a situation arose. One member had a wife who worked at the school and she would abstain on the collective bargaining agreement vote. Three members who live in Kearsage Village took it a step further and abstained on the road improvement vote. It even costs them votes. It seemed like the right thing to do and, to their credit, they did. A member of the planning board who works for one of the city’s prominent developers always steps back and sits in the audience when her boss makes a presentation. It removes all doubts.

Perhaps my own sense of what conflict should be is raising the bar to an unrealistically high level, but I believe that conflict occurs when one has an obligation to promote one interest but instead chooses to promote a competing interest. In short, a conflict of interest exists whenever an official chooses to promote an interest in competition with the organization of which he or she is an official. This represents a potential stimulus for bias. This is not considered a conflict as it relates to our city employees as long as it does not involve the potential for financial gain. That was true of me when I was on the budget committee and the planning board, and I agree with that.

Lack of disclosure, however, is a different matter altogether. By not disclosing competing interests, a person acting in a representative capacity is playing with a hidden agenda, whether it is intentional or not. Again, when I was on the budget committee, I was both a member of the board of directors of the Red Cross and that of the North Conway Community Center. Several members were on many other boards. We have always disclosed this before presenting our arguments and recommendations. There were no ulterior motives. The problem with an undisclosed conflict of interest is that both parties to a transaction may believe that their interests are being promoted when at least one of them is wrong. This is a matter of great concern at present in business organizations, most of which have already adopted strong conflict policies, including full disclosure. Such disclosure policies should also be relevant to non-profit organizations and government officials. They should not be immunized in my opinion.

Suppose, hypothetically speaking, that one of the school board members, John Smith, is also a board member of a rural business association. This member voted against the proposal to raise funds through the purchase of commemorative chairs because he felt it would compete with the business association’s program to purchase commemorative bricks. Does this board member have a conflict of interest? In a theoretical sense, yes, but not according to our city’s policy, since there is no profit motive or disclosure requirement. But what is the right thing for Smith to do in such a situation?

Well, for starters, it should fully disclose potential competing interests. Second, he must recognize that his personal interests are subordinated to his duties as an insider to the organization he serves, which in this case is the school board. He does not represent his other board when sitting on this board. His sole concern is to vote in the best interest of the organization for which he is elected a member. Any other interest is a conflicting interest. If he cannot do that, he must abstain from voting, but that is strictly his decision. Again, this type of disclosure is not required here. But if it did, all doubt would be removed and “hidden agendas,” whether perceived or real, would be largely a thing of the past.

Non-profit organizations are particularly vulnerable to conflict situations. This is partly due to the use of volunteers who want to assist the organization in its business transactions. Although the motives of almost all volunteers are clear, some may offer their services with ulterior motives of profit. Conflicts can arise involving suppliers, employees and fundraisers and care should be taken. For example, if the board of a non-profit organization is considering contracting with a firm for a task, and the firm being considered is co-owned by a close relative of one of the board members, then that board member should not vote or discuss which firm should be selected. .

What does it all mean? Well, on the one hand, our city’s current approach is reasonable, as it would be unrealistic to ban those conflicts that do not involve financial gain. The town is too small and many of our staff members are on too many different boards and committees. However, disclosure should be a requirement regardless of the type of conflict. Hidden objectives are just that, hidden; everything should be on the table and in front. If nothing else, it enriches the discussion and opens up new avenues for argument.

Whether or not an official wishes to abstain after disclosure is strictly their business and often depends on that particular individual’s own judgment of what is right and what is wrong. Arguably, the aforementioned members of the budget committee who lived in Kearsage Village should not have abstained from voting to improve the road. By choosing to do this, they removed all doubt.

Let’s consider adding disclosure to our policies. Let’s do it regardless of the nature of the conflict. Let’s put everything on the table. At the very least, let’s get rid of the term “hidden agendas.”

“I’ve found that being honest is the best technique I can use. Tell people right away what you’re trying to accomplish.” Lee Iacocca

#Hidden #agendas #full #disclosure

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