Favoritism process undemocratic; leads to unfair advantage.

August 23, 2013

A recent 4-3 votes in Rehoboth Beach favorable on acceptance of the donation of a garden by Sister Cities and on endorsement of a plan for a docking facility illustrate the power of one vote. But are the results of the votes a true reflection of a fair democratic process when an elected official’s vote is used to garner an unfair advantage?

The Delaware Code of Conduct generally does not allow for elected officials who are also board members of an association to participate in association affairs brought before the elected official’s governmental body.

With apparent violations seemingly so prevalent, does anyone really care or is favoritism the new norm? In my city, experiences demonstrate willingness among some elected officials who are board members of various associations to disregard state laws governing conduct of elected officials. The unfortunate note is, as public officials, we have been alerted time and again to the existence of the code of conduct and some seem to ignore the caution.

It is in disobedience of the code of conduct when an elected official as a board member of another association initiates agenda topics supported by the association, leads discussion on the agenda topics and then votes on the association’s proposal. This is beyond merely providing an opportunity for information, but rather acting for an association to gain a benefit.

This further rises to a pinnacle when the association’s ideas are acted on by a formal vote of the elected body and the vote is tipped to the side of the association by the single vote of their board member while wearing the hat of the elected official.

Two recent scenarios illustrate my point.

The board member (president) of an association that proposed a donation of a garden to the city is an elected commissioner who initiated and facilitated presentations before the elected body and led discussions culminating in a vote on whether or not to accept the gift. That vote passed favorably because the elected official/board member was the swing vote. With an ethical recusal by the elected official/board member, the outcome of the vote would have been against the motion which would have resulted in another course of action or would have tabled the topic. But just the opposite vote result occurred as a result of their participation in contravention of the code of conduct.

The most topical is a board member (president) of an association proposing a water taxi facility at the entrance to the city. This is again an elected commissioner who initiated and facilitated a number of presentations before the elected body and led discussions that culminated in a vote by the board of commissioners. That vote passed because the elected official/board member was again the swing vote; otherwise the topic would have received a no vote.

I believe these examples as well as others illustrate a blatant and willful blindness to the spirit and intent of the code of conduct.

I realize it may be difficult to separate the nuance of this issue. The vote ratio yea-to-nay and the garden and water taxi topics themselves are not the point here, but are used to highlight the processes that introduced the topics and carried the topics through to a vote. Democracy mandates a level playing field, eschewing favoritism or the special interest of an elected official.

It is increasingly impractical if not impossible to be an elected official and an association board member simultaneously. According to the code of conduct and Public Integrity Commission (PIC) opinion, if a conflict of interest arises when an agenda topic involves an association for which you are a board member, you, as an elected official, are to recuse and even leave the room during any discussion and vote. And actually you are not entitled to voice any opinions on the topic as an elected official.

As elected officials in the City of Rehoboth Beach, in addition to having the state code of conduct as a compass, we affirm in our sworn oath “…always to place the public interests above any special or personal interests….”

For those ignoring the code as well as for those of us aware of ongoing violations, we can and must do better to maintain the integrity of the democratic process. While no one is perfect and it is difficult to determine every situation in advance, we cannot look the other way. We need to gain a better understanding of the rules through education. But then, most importantly, we have to be willing to do our best to comply.

Stan Mills
commissioner, City of Rehoboth Beach



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