Father and son on Wheeler board raises conflict question
September 18, 2009
ASPEN – Accusations of a conflict of interest have surfaced over a father and son both being voting members on the Wheeler Opera House Board of Directors.
The Aspen City Council in July appointed Nick Erickson, 17, to the board as a student representative. His father, Ron Erickson, is the board’s chairman.
Some members of the public and fellow board members are taking issue with the appointment, saying it’s a conflict and it creates undue influence over another board member.
“I think it’s inappropriate that the council appoints family members to any board,” said Wheeler board member Cathy Markle. “It doesn’t make any sense. It smacks of nepotism.”
She said the father-son duo could jeopardize future decisions made by the board if someone was to challenge a vote.
Ron Erickson doesn’t agree.
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“He is free to vote however he wants,” Erickson said, adding because his son is studying civics and government at Aspen High School he thought it would be a good idea to serve on a city advisory board.
So Nick applied for the open seat, as did one other student. When it came time for applicant interviews, only Nick showed up. The council called the other student and rescheduled the interview, but ultimately Nick was chosen.
“It wasn’t like we had an abundance of applicants,” said City Councilman Steve Skadron. “The question came up, and we decided there was no conflict.”
Councilman Derek Johnson said Nick was the best candidate.
“He was a very well-qualified candidate and a good student,” he said. “We didn’t think it was a conflict of interest.”
City Attorney John Worcester said there is nothing in the city charter that prevents relatives from sitting on the same advisory board.
“I don’t think there is a conflict,” he said, adding a father and son on the board does create an unusual situation in that it could create more voting power. “The whole board needs to be sensitive to the fact that there are two family members there.”
Erickson said the student representative seat had been empty for more than a year, and if his son was the only qualified person for the position then so be it.
“As far as I am concerned, everyone has a right to apply for boards and commissions,” he said. “The council was fully aware of it, and they discussed it at length.”
It appears that not only is Nick getting a lesson in civics but also in Aspen politics. Erickson said his son has been “lambasted all over town” as a result of the controversy. He said he sat Nick down on Wednesday and discussed the matter with him.
Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gram Slaton said the seven board members discussed Nick’s appointment in July and again in August. Two other board members besides Markle expressed their opposition, and the others didn’t weigh in one way or the other.
Slaton also offered no opinion, except to say it wasn’t his “place to question a decision made by City Council … I’m happy to work with whoever I’m given.”
Markle said the board’s bylaws should be changed so this situation doesn’t happen in the future.
“I have nothing against Nicholas,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Erickson said he doesn’t believe his son will share his same views on every issue that comes before the board, which historically operates from a consensus viewpoint.
“It’s a pretty benign group of people,” he said.
Erickson also said he welcomes dissenting opinions and added his son’s vote is only one of seven.
“I don’t have an agenda, and that I think is why the City Council didn’t feel that there was a conflict of interest,” he said, adding serving on the board is a productive use of time for his teenager. “It’s better than him sitting around watching TV.”