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Legislature needs new system to address conflicts of interest

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 8:46 pm, Sun May 19, 2013.

On March 20, a government body in Alaska began its deliberations on an issue, but not before a member declared a potential conflict of interest and asked to be excused from the debate and the vote.

The member sought legal advice on what the law requires and the attorney said he had a fiduciary responsibility to the private organization at the heart of the proposed action.

The other members of the governing body voted to excuse him from the debate and the decision.

One day earlier, another government body in Alaska began its deliberations on an issue, but not before two members declared a potential conflict of interest and asked to be excused from voting.

In that case there was no discussion, no advice from attorneys and no public vote. Unidentified individuals said “object” and the request failed.

The only official record states, “objections were heard” and the two members were required to vote.

The first instance I’ve just told you about took place before the Fairbanks North Star Borough Platting Board. On March 20, the board voted 4-3 to declare that Bill Mendenhall, a retired engineering professor from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, had a conflict of interest and was prohibited from voting on a matter before the board.

He abstained from voting on whether a lot on Lacey Street could be replatted into two lots. Mendenhall serves as a volunteer on the board of directors of the hospital foundation, which owns the property.

The second instance took place in the state Senate when two senators who work for ConocoPhillips when they are not in Juneau asked that they be allowed to abstain from voting on the bill to cut oil taxes by billions of dollars during the next several years.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, of Anchorage, said he had a “perceived conflict of interest” and Sen. Peter Micciche, of Soldotna, said he might have a “perceived or actual conflict of interest.”

There was no debate on whether the conflict was real or enough to prevent them from making a decision on a change in oil taxes that was worth hundreds of millions to the company that employs them.

People shouted “object” and the matter was finished.

No one in Alaska should have been surprised that Meyer and Micciche were required to vote. The Alaska Legislature has a long-standing tradition that everyone is always required to vote.

There is room for a good debate on whether members of a government body in Alaska should be required to abstain from voting because of a conflict of interest.

That takes place in local governments across Alaska on a regular basis. On March 28, Borough Assembly Member Van Lawrence was excused from voting on a measure to pay people for not burning wood on bad air days. It was targeted at homes in his neighborhood and he could have applied for the program, the presiding office of the assembly ruled.

On March 20, at the same platting board meeting where Mendenhall abstained on the hospital vote, Randy Pitney abstained on a question because it dealt with property along a short street he travels to reach the office space used by the Arctic Winter Games behind Beaver Sports. He is on the board of directors of the winter games.

It is common for members of volunteer boards and elected officials to abstain from voting because of a conflict. When the question comes up, the issue is debated in public.

Sometimes it is decided by the presiding officer and sometimes it is put to a vote.

But a debate about what constitutes a conflict of interest never takes place in the Legislature, though the stakes are much higher.

For all practical purposes, legislators are never allowed to abstain.

That’s because it is a reflex action for one or more lawmakers to shout “object” when someone asks to abstain from voting because of a conflict of interest.

The only way to avoid voting is to disappear at the time of the vote. But if it is a significant vote, any other legislator will demand that the missing legislator be brought to the floor to participate.

The antiquated legislative rules handed down from generation to generation say that unanimous consent is required to be excused from voting. The names of those who shout “object” are not recorded.

So it’s possible that someone in the gallery, a member of the press corps or even the person who asks to be excused from voting could add their voices to the objection choir.

Some legislators recognize the folly of the current system, but the institution is incapable of reforming itself. It makes no effort to identify and adopt best practices or incorporate lessons that might be learned from other institutions and other legislative bodies.

Once people are elected to the Legislature and gain positions of power, they accept the traditions because to do anything else would jeopardize their power.

Instead of requiring unanimous consent, majority rule should be the standard as to whether a member must abstain. And there should be a vote, not just a reflex action for which no one is held accountable.

An external review is needed to deal with these and other operational deficiencies that continue to be defended simply on the basis of tradition.

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