Lee avoiding conflicts of interest

LEESBURG -- Local elected officials say the line they walk between ethics violations and relying on acceptable logic when authorizing the spending of taxpayer money is a fine one. Yet it's a line officials traverse on a regular basis.

Just how successfully those entrusted with budgets that frequently run in the millions of dollars skirt actual and implied ethics concerns as they make such choices sometimes comes down to a matter of personal integrity.

Or, as Lee County Administrator Tony Massey put it, "There's what's legal, and then there's what I call the 'smell test.' Does the decision 'smell' right; does it pass public scrutiny? Usually, that's just a matter of common sense."

Citizens are often left to wonder if what they perceive as unethical is a matter of poor decision-making or if actual laws have been broken.

Such was the case when Dougherty County School Board member Milton Griffin notoriously said he didn't care if the board spent a significantly greater amount of money on a budget item if someone he knew benefited. He also claimed he would not recuse himself from voting on employees who were relatives because he wanted to help them get jobs.

In Leesburg, two members of the City Council mildly rebuked interim Public Works Director Bill Mitchell for OK'ing work on a site-clearing project before funding of the work had been discussed with the council.

And state Rep. Ed Rynders said he was personally involved in an issue that certainly appeared to skirt the boundaries of ethical misconduct.

"I was involved in working to get a state grant for a community (in the Leesburg Republican's House District 152), and that grant was denied," Rynders said. "One of the reasons (for the denial) was the cost of certain work done by a vendor. The state stated in its denial that the cost for the work in question nearly doubled what it should have been.

"Lo and behold, when the community reapplied for the same state grant in question, the cost was lowered by the same vendor to be in line with the going rate. That begs the question: Why didn't the community get the best price the first time? That's why the state has cost oversight on local grants."

One of the problems local communities -- especially smaller ones -- run into is a lack of funding to staff such professionals as engineers, inspectors, lawyers, architects and auditors. As Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander pointed out, "It really wouldn't be fiscally responsible to have such professionals on staff whose services might not be needed regularly."

Alexander said Lee, for example, has contracts with a number of engineering firms that are paid an hourly rate to help with such matters as storm water management, flood plain management, mapping, road improvement projects and planning. Most such work is required by state and federal agencies.

"It depends on the types of projects we're working on, but we generally maintain contracts with a number of area engineering firms to help with certain types of work that come up over the course of the year," Alexander said. "We've found it's a lot more efficient to utilize these types of professionals when they're needed.

"They provide professional service on an hourly basis and send us monthly reports for the work they've completed."

Alexander said Lee County has such contracts with EMC Engineering, H&H Resources, Lanier Engineering, TTL Inc. and the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission.

Rynders said he understands the financial concerns of smaller communities. But he warned that there can be unintended consequences.

"So many of the small communities in our region don't have the financial resources to have full-time employees for specialized projects," he said. "Because of this, they depend on outside vendors to be their experts. Too many times, though, these experts have built too close a personal relationship with officials where the potential for conflicts of interest arise.

"Local elected officials have to trust vendors to get them the best price. Too many times it just isn't the best price, or the specs have been written to benefit the vendor."

When Mitchell was questioned about green-lighting funding for the Leesburg site work at a recent City Council meeting, Mayor Jim Quinn was quick to jump to his defense, saying the immediate need for the work led to an "honest mistake."

Quinn said cities as small as Leesburg don't usually have a large number of high-cost projects to oversee, leading to more of a reliance on common sense when dealing with taxpayer funding.

"We're fixing a hole on (U.S. Highway) 19, and we need a small amount of concrete," Quinn said. "I can't imagine anyone would expect us to call three different companies to get prices and then meet to determine which is the most reasonable bid. A lot of times, you have to use a little common sense.

"If we have state, federal or DOT projects in the city, there are guidelines and requirements that we must follow. And we have our own guidelines for projects that cost over a certain amount. But I don't think there's any problem with the way we do things. Ethically, I think we're OK."

Former Leesburg City Councilwoman Rhonda Futch, who owns the Phone Lady telecommunications business, resigned from her seat on the council in early March, saying she could not devote the time she needed to her one-woman business and still serve the people of the city adequately. Her reasoning hit home when, almost two months later, she was awarded the contract to upgrade the Lee County School System's phone system.

"I actually wasn't informed about that project until after I left the council," Futch said. "And even then, because of the size of the project and all the data work involved, I thought it was too big a job for me. However, Robert Powell with ProNet, which does data work, approached me about partnering on the project, and that's when we submitted a bid.

"If I had still been on the council, I wouldn't have had the time to devote to the job. That was my whole reasoning for stepping down from the council. I couldn't be in North Carolina (serving customers) one week, at home for a week, in Indiana the next week, at home another week and in Florida the next week. It wasn't going to work for my business or the city."

Leesburg City Clerk Casey Moore said she did not seek a bid from Futch when the city upgraded its phone system during the time Futch was on the council.

"When we sent out the contract to vendors, our reasoning for leaving a member of the City Council out was a simple one," Moore said. "If the business owner received the award for (having) the low bid, the city might have had to answer some sticky questions as to why an elected official would be allowed to bid on a project where (he or she) could have influenced the winning bid.

"I made a decision to leave elected officials out of the bid process on any project we do. The decision was made to protect the city as well as the public official; the public official because they do not want to be viewed as benefitting from their elected position and the city because we want to retain a level of transparency as good stewards of taxpayer funds."

Futch said the city phone upgrade was another example of how her position on the council impacted her business.

"That was a case that was pretty clear when it comes to conflict of interest," she said. "One of the main things they told us at the GMA (Georgia Municipal Association) ethics class we attended is that if you, your family or friends are involved in any government business, you must excuse yourself.

"The city phone system (upgrade) was not an option for me. That was clear and straightforward."

Massey said the county, a much larger entity than the city of Leesburg, has a policy of using a bidding process for projects that will cost more than $10,000. And he said that while state law does not always require going the extra step to procure professional services, it still is the prudent thing to do.

"I think it's just prudent to send out a request for proposal so that you're covered if any changes or issues arise," the county administrator said. "In circumstances where you need professional services your staff can't provide, I think it's smart to have an accounting of exactly what is expected, of the vendor and the county.

"It's a lot cleaner to send out the RFPs, and you're subject to a lot less criticism."

Massey said that while a recent Supreme Court ruling made it clear that public officials are allowed to bid on government jobs, he is adamantly opposed to any such bid that would appear to be a conflict of interest.

"We did have an example where one of our employees was affiliated with a company we were buying equipment from," Massey said. "We got the company and the employee to sign documents saying he was not involved in the sale and got no compensation for it.

"It was just a matter of being up-front and above-board."

Still, Rynders said local elected officials must constantly guard against knowingly or unknowingly giving vendors they're comfortable with an unfair advantage ... or even being taken advantage of.

"I can't help but wonder how many local governments are unknowingly being taken advantage of by local vendors when it comes to local projects where there may not be oversight," the lawmaker said. "In fairness, the finger shouldn't always be pointed at the local elected officials. The conflict may come from department heads who are making recommendations to the officials.

"When I have received calls from vendors who believe they've not been given a fair shot at local business, I have cautioned elected officials about the dangers of even the appearance of conflict of interest."