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Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’

August 4, 2011

The ethics controversy that has erupted recently in the Sullivan County Legislature centers around the concepts of conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety, and an unusual county ethics rule that requires that an abstention on the basis of apparent improprieties that do not meet the technical standard of “conflict of interest” be recorded as a “yes” vote.

Specifically, legislators Jodi Goodman and Leni Binder have been accused of impropriety in connection with accepting box seating at Bethel Woods from Stuart Salenger, and voting twice in favor of admitting parcels owned by Salenger into the county’s Agricultural District Number Four.

Binder and Goodman have responded that current rules for the county legislature make it effectively impossible to abstain in circumstances where there is only an appearance of impropriety, rather than the more strictly defined “conflict of interest,” because the county requires that abstentions in the former case be counted as a “yes.” They are calling for a rule change. Others defend the current rules by saying that requiring abstentions to be counted as “yes” forestalls legislators from using the appearance of impropriety as an excuse to avoid politically tough votes.

Goodman has said, “We believe it would be preferable to amend the rules of the legislature to permit a legislator to abstain under circumstances where a legislator has a close relationship with, or has been the beneficiary of hospitality from, a person or firm who has an interest in a matter pending before the legislature.” We think she has a point.

First of all, we would argue that, in a democracy, appearances—not just actual conflicts of interest—are important. That’s because what is at stake is the public trust. If the public does not have confidence that their representatives are making decisions dispassionately, and without bias in favor of some particular people or constituencies with whom they have close relationships, they will lose their trust in government. Loss of trust means loss of involvement, low voter participation rates and a public conversation that breaks down in vitriol and accusations rather than constructive dialogue. The types of situation cited by Goodman, whether or not they are a matter of appearance or actual conflict of interest, are to be avoided.