Being a member of almost any oversight board can be a thankless — and often unpaid — job, but that doesn’t relieve board members of knowing the law and the board’s policies and adhering to them.
Not doing so tends to get boards and board members into trouble.
Board members can avoid trouble — even if they are not legal experts or if they haven’t memorized any handbooks — by simply applying the smell test (Wiktionary definition: an informal method for determining whether something is authentic, credible, or ethical, by using one’s common sense or sense of propriety).
Claiming — or feigning — ignorance is not a substitute for good judgment. That’s a lesson some members of the Western Reserve Port Authority would do well to learn.
There have been two remarkable recent revelations about actions taken in February 2009 by the port authority, which overseas the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. The first is that the board apparently did not question its authority to award a long-term lease to a private company for an $11 million loading apron that was built largely with federal money. The second is that one of the board members, Scott Lewis, participated in closed door discussions regarding the lease of the land, even though he was the real estate agent for the sale of the vacant Davis Air Cargo Center that occupied the land. As such, he stood to gain financially if the deal went through.
Memories seem to vary on what happened and who said what. Lewis originally said he couldn’t recall whether he sat in on the executive session attended by board members and representatives of the company interested in the cargo center. He later acknowledged that he did, and today’s A1 news story reports that he introduced the potential lessees at the beginning of a closed door meeting.
Last week, the board’s lawyer, Dan Keating, allowed that Lewis may have answered questions posed to him during the executive session, adding that there would have been nothing improper if he had. This week, Keating said he recalls Lewis specifically telling other board members that he had been handling the cargo building listing for a long time.
What are the rules?
The board’s bylaws state: “Board members are prohibited from taking any action, including voting, discussing, deliberating or formally or informally lobbying, on any matter where something of value would go to himself, his family, his business associates, his employer, or others with whom he has a relationship that would affect his objectivity.”
State ethics law prohibit a public official from having “an interest in the profits or benefits of a public contract entered into by or for the use of the political subdivision or governmental agency or instrumentality with which the public official is connected.”
Any reading of the board’s policy or the ethics law should be enough to cause a board member to question whether he can be a part of presenting a deal to the board knowing that if the deal goes through he or his company will profit from it. That Lewis abstained when it came time for the actual vote on the deal only seems to confirm a recognition that he had a conflict of interest.
For that matter, any member of the board should have recognized that there was an inherit conflict in one of their colleagues profiting from a deal that they had all discussed.
That none did — at least not until well after the fact — raises questions about the board’s sense of smell.
The public can hope that this was an aberration, the lone instance of the board letting its guard down. That the board’s lawyer and board chairman continue to suggest that there was nothing wrong with Lewis’ involvement in the deal is not encouraging.