Stone: Conflict of interest isn’t hard to define
October 8, 2014
Warning: Art-museum reference ahead! But this is not — repeat, not — a column about the Aspen Art Museum.
OK. Here we go.
Back when the building that eventually turned into the art museum was first proposed, City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss said he would not participate in the discussion or the vote on that project.
DeVilbiss, a former District Court judge, said he had to stay out of the debate because he had a conflict of interest.
Reasonable. Ethical. Admirable.
His conflict of interest? The new building would replace the Wienerstube restaurant, where he loved to eat.
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Really. That was it. The councilman said he wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety — even though it was a foregone conclusion that the building that housed the restaurant was going to be torn down come what may.
Now, let's compare that to the most recent conflict-of-interest discussion involving an Aspen city councilman and a downtown development.
That would be the decision by Councilman Dwayne Romero to vote on the Dancing Bear "residence club" proposal for a tunnel under Durant Avenue.
Despite some serious (as we shall see) potential for a conflict of interest, Romero was not willing to simply do the "full DeVilbiss" and withdraw.
Instead, he went to Aspen City Attorney Jim True.
And True ruled that Romero did not have to withdraw because he did not have a direct financial stake in the matter.
"I have no financial interest as tested through the conflict-of-interest policy within our charter, and therefore I will stay here at the table," Romero said, according to a story in the Aspen Daily News.
He then proceeded to cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 decision to allow the developers of Dancing Bear to dig up Durant Avenue for a tunnel, so guests and employees can scurry between the project's two buildings without actually having to expose themselves to the harsh elements.
And everyone lived happily ever after.
Here's what (and let's see if we can make this complicated mess clear):
In his "real" job — the one that pays the bills — Romero is the president of Related Colorado, which is a minuscule division of Related Cos., a multibillion-dollar global real estate development and management giant.
OK. Fair enough. Romero's a developer.
Next point: Related Colorado is the owner/developer of Base Village in Snowmass. We don't need to go too deeply into that situation except to note that Related and Base Village have had a lengthy and turbulent relationship — complete with bankruptcies, lawsuits, promises made and broken and a still-unfinished project that has provoked screams of anguish from residents, visitors and local officials.
OK. Got it. Aspen City Councilman Romero is the local boss of the bigfoot developer in Snowmass.
Next: Back in August, Base Village teamed up with a couple of big dogs in the development world when, as reported in this newspaper, "Sunrise Co., Oaktree Capital Management L.P. and Related signed a letter of intent" for a project in Base Village.
Finally — whew! — if the name Sunrise sounds familiar, that's because Sunrise (along with Oaktree) is the owner/developer of Dancing Bear. (Remember Dancing Bear? The project with the tunnel?)
And when that Base Village deal was announced, Romero, president of Related Colorado — and, in his spare time, Aspen city councilman — declared, "We are thrilled to partner with Sunrise and Oaktree."
The councilman went on to express his delight that the "synergy between Sunrise, Oaktree, the Aspen Skiing Co. and Related has great potential to drive additional occupancies and vitality for Base Village and more generally for the town as a whole."
"Partners" with "synergy." Boilerplate but still revealing.
To recap: As president of Related Colorado, Romero declares he is a "partner" with the owners of Dancing Bear, and then, as an Aspen city councilman, he casts the deciding vote in favor of a Dancing Bear project.
And between the declaration of partnership and the vote of approval, Romero stopped by the City Attorney's Office to get a ruling that there was no conflict of interest between his role as a partner and his role as a representative of the public interest evaluating his partner's project.
To which one can only say, "Huh?"
Actually, one can say a great deal more than that.
I do not mean to imply that Romero has acted illegally or even, by strict definition, unethically.
But I have to say that when it comes to ethics, I think he has a bit of a tin ear.
He certainly was tiptoeing around the subject with his statement that he did not have "a financial interest" in the project "as tested through the conflict-of-interest policy within our charter."
That policy, as cited by Romero and True, declares that a "financial interest" has to involve ownership of the project.
Romero isn't an owner. He works for the owner. Does a man have a financial interest in what his boss wants?
Well, Upton Sinclair famously said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
Does Aspen need a new councilman? A new city attorney? A new conflict-of-interest policy?
All good questions.
And I can only suggest that those seeking answers might look back to J.E. DeVilbiss, retired from the District Court and the practice of law, representing only his constituents, the people of Aspen.
DeVilbiss was a man who knew the law and had a true ethical compass — and who wouldn't vote on a project because it would replace a restaurant where he loved to eat.
He didn't rely on legalistic tiptoeing. He knew what was right.
He wanted to avoid any appearance — even the appearance — of impropriety.
I think Aspen still deserves no less than that.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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