Minor conflicts shouldn’t hold back Aspen council | AspenTimes.com

Minor conflicts shouldn’t hold back Aspen council

First, let’s begin by saying a sincere “thank you” to the members of the Aspen City Council who have been so conscientious in openly declaring the conflicts of interest that have surfaced in the course of the council’s business. We’re glad the first impulse of these public servants is to disclose the conflict and deal with it honestly.

After all, if a politician has an undeclared conflict of interest, any number of bad things can happen. Think of the elected official who approves a land-use development when he’s actually on the developer’s payroll, or the mayor who awards a contract that fattens the pocketbook of his wife or family. Bad public policy results from such decisions, and that’s why we have laws that require decision-makers to declare their conflicts of interest and, often, “recuse” themselves from voting on such matters.

No such serious conflicts exist, however, in some recent instances where Aspen council members have recused themselves. In fact, we think council members might be abstaining from council business in instances where they simply feel a mite uncomfortable or torn.

Take the example of the Weinerstube redevelopment, in which Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss abstained from voting because he often eats breakfast at the ‘Stube. Or Councilman Jack Johnson’s abstention on the Christ Episcopal Church expansion because he’s an Episcopalian; Johnson doesn’t attend the Aspen church, but he remains a member of a Kentucky Episcopalian congregation (different story for Councilman Dwayne Romero, who’s an active member in Aspen).

These recusals, in fact, are somewhat quaint. These councilmen want to eliminate any perception of conflict, which is a good thing. But it seems to us they’re using laws intended to prevent corruption and kickbacks in order to breathe a little easier in council chambers or at the ‘Stube joiner’s table on the morning after a big decision.

The public’s business is not an easy task, and it’s hard to fault a council member for wanting to let the rest of the panel handle a tough decision. But we elected these officials to exercise their judgment and to take the heat, so they should.

This is not to say, “Don’t declare a conflict.” If Johnson feels torn between his faith and a land-use application, then we’d urge him to announce the conflict to the council and the public. But he’s not bound by law to recuse himself unless the conflict would truly cloud his judgment, and we’d submit that there’s a long distance ” geographically and morally ” between Kentucky and council chambers.

Elected officials in Aspen and elsewhere commonly declare conflicts of interest like these but go ahead and vote, because the conflict isn’t serious enough to warrant a recusal. Aspen remains a small town, and minor conflicts are bound to surface at the council table; we would ask our city council members to consider these purported conflicts more carefully before they take themselves out of the decision-making process.

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