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When interests conflict (or not)

Jim Tibbs

Jim Tibbs

This week’s attempt at a Boise mayoral campaign attack – which didn’t go over very well – was a case of failure to fully engage mind before opening mouth. It has set Council member Jim Tibbs back in his effort to unseat Mayor Dave Bieter, and not just in this instance: His effort this time went over so poorly it likely will undermine his next attempt too.

The Tibbs press release said this:

. . . Tibbs presented documents outlining Mayor Bieter’s proposal to pay the Gallatin Group over $65,000 in taxpayer money while failing to disclose his personal campaign business relationship with the company.

“This is a case of political payback and graft like I have never seen in Boise.” Said Tibbs “To have The Gallatin Group on Dave Bieter’s payroll and ask for $65,000 in a city contract on their behalf is outrageous- it doesn’t come close to passing the smell test.”

Jim Tibbs has asked the Ethics Commission report by August 15th.

“Mayor Biter [sic] has made a thinly veiled attempt at ethics that I don’t think the citizen of Boise will buy.” Tibbs added

This has already been effectively parsed in an Idaho Statesman editorial (which is worth the read) and elsewhere; here we’ll try not to cover all that ground again, but aspects of it do call for a wider view and an exclamation point.

An internal problem with the release (apart from proofreading – we reproduced the text here verbatim) is that it doesn’t indicate a conflict. A conflict of interests might occur if, for example, Bieter were being paid by Gallatin for outside contracting work and then proposed it receive a city contract. That could be a conflict between private interest and public responsibility. Instead, in this case, he spent campaign money with Gallatin, and also recommended it for city work. That indicates some closeness, perhaps; but where’s the conflict?

It is true (though unnoted in the release) that Gallatin’s president, Boise’s Marc Johnson, has a volunteer role on the Bieter campaign. A small deal, but you could make a case for some limited conflict. At the same time, Gallatin was being considered to do lobbying work for the city (that’s the $65,000 contract Tibbs refers to). So you might ask the question: What should Bieter have done?

Approval of such contracts rests with the Boise City Council, which essentially a legislative body. How do legislative bodies handle conflicts? Typically, members are required to openly declare potential conflicts, and then either abstain from voting or debating or go ahead and participate. Here are a couple of examples. In the Idaho Legislature, a declaration is conflict is in the rules, and members can abstain. In Oregon, the stringent rules require legislators to declare a conflict – as they did an uncommonly large number of times this year’s session – but does not excuse them from their obligation to vote.

Bieter did propose the Gallatin contract to the council, in effect a recommendation. But he told the council, and the public, that he had a relationship with Gallatin, and recused himself from debate or action on the recommendation. That certainly would fit within the legislative-type framework.

At the time all this was happening, Tibbs was one of the council members responsible for making the decision on the contract. But he didn’t. Saying he had a medical appointment, he skipped the council action on the contract, and had nothing to say about it to other council members either before the vote or after, until now. In the heat of campaign. So who, Bieter or Tibbs, more properly acted within the scope of their official responsibility?

Tibbs now has gotten into a squabble with other council members over this, and some of his language – talk about City Hall as a “Gallatin playground” – is sufficiently over the top to make some hitherto independent voters wary.

The general reaction to Tibbs’ announcement seemed to be critical. At this point, he’s going to start with an uphill walk when he makes his next blast against Bieter. He will have to pick his next material more carefully: If he doesn’t, he may get little attention for the blasts he makes after that.

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