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Stepping aside right away removes doubt

Johnson City Press • Apr 11, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Regular readers will recall that we published a series of articles in September about conflicts of interest between public matters and private considerations, including business.

We noted the example of Grant Summers, who resigned from the Johnson City Development Authority in 2016 when one of his companies, R&G Development, entered into a contract to buy the Model Mill and began exploring options for tax increment financing incentives from the JCDA. Since R&G later entered into a contract with the development authority, Summers’ JCDA participation would have put him in conflict with state law had he stayed.

“There are so many things that connect in our lives, especially in small towns, and to avoid them is impossible,” Summers told Press News Editor Nathan Baker. ”I think most people are very up front about whether conflicts exist and remove themselves from the decision-making process.“

Summers’ case was obvious with respect to the law, but some conflicts are less direct. At times, they simply represent the appearance of conflict, and that can be just as problematic.

We saw that Monday night at the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting when Alderman Stephen Callahan proposed changing the permit for the weekly Brews and Tunes event to substitute the words “alcoholic beverages” for “beer.”

The problem here is that Callahan is in the alcohol business, which he made abundantly clear as he tried to defend his proposal Monday night — noting he was speaking not as an alderman but rather as the owner of Tennessee Hills Distillery. Responding to fellow Alderman Adam Dickson’s opposition, Callahan noted the lack of problems at past events during which his business served spirits.

“Whether a person drinks 10 beers or three cocktails and gets out of hand, it does not make a substantial difference,” Callahan said in the meeting.

The situation even prompted a five-minute recess with a closed-door session that Mayor Chuck Vest later told Staff Writer Kenne Medley was intended to allow Callahan to “relax a little.”

We do not know whether Tennessee Hills ever would have been been involved in Brews and Tunes. Regardless of motive, Callahan’s personal interests were on full display. By proposing the change in the first place and citing his own business in his defense, he clearly was too close to the issue to be an objective public servant on matters involving the sale of alcohol.

Callahan smartly recused himself from a vote to approve the permit as written — without the change to alcoholic beverages — but he should have avoided the issue entirely.

Yes, all public officials will have personal connections to public matters, especially in small towns like Jonesborough. School board members often have children in the school districts they govern, for example.

But when it comes to specific conflicts, they must remove any doubt about motive. The mere appearance of a conflict of interest, especially financial, should be enough for an elected official to step aside from the outset.

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