I've written about this concept before: whether it's right or wrong for people to have "vested interests" when it comes to how they position themselves on public issues. Readers used this term in debates about the Neiman Marcus controversy. Now, it’s popping up again in debates about the city budget and in discussions about the decision to go forward with building the library. Actually, the term “conflict of interest” is also showing up in comments.
To me, “conflict of interest” applies to very specific, legal circumstances, and it suggests a public official who is doing something illegal. He or she is voting on a project, for instance, that would lead to direct personal financial gain.
Just so you know, I checked in with City Attorney Paul Valle-Riestra in regards to one city council member, Cindy Silva. Someone in the comments raised the question: When she voted to approve funding for construction of the library in January 2007, did she have a conflict of interest?
Given that she had been a paid, part-time consultant for the Walnut Creek Library Foundation and a volunteer campaigner for a library bond measure in 2005?
Valle-Riestra says no. He says she resigned from her consulting job with the foundation as soon as she was elected to the City Council in November 2006. She didn’t stand to gain financially from her yes vote on the library a few months later, and personal financial gain is the standard for a conflict-of-interest allegation, Valle-Riestra said.
As for her voting when she had a history of advocacy for this project, Valle-Riestra said that politicians vote on issues all the time in which they have a personal interest or bias. We might be uncomfortable with that sometimes, but there is nothing illegal about it.
“People have sued politicians for voting in favor of projects for which they campaign during elections, and show a strong bias,” he said. “The courts have said that politicians are supposed to have strongly held views of issues during campaigns. If they kept silent about their biases, we wouldn’t have much of a democracy.”
Now that we’re talking about this council person’s bias and work and volunteer history with regard to this major downtown project, I might as well reveal a potential bias of my own as I continue to blog about the city budget.
Up until recently, I edited Diablo Arts, the magazine that is distributed to patrons at the Lesher Center. As that magazine's editor, I talked regularly to Lesher Center and Diablo Regional Arts Association staff, and to people involved with local performing arts groups.
And, just so you know,I was a big drama geek in high school. So, I like the theater, and I like artsy people.
The talent, creativity and drive of some of Walnut Creek's arts folks added to my sense that it is really cool to live and work in this town. Maybe you could say I drank the arts Kool-Aid, but I do see arts and culture as an asset to the city. Now, and in the long term.
For example, the city made a huge investment back in the 1980s to build the Lesher Center, which opened in 1990. It transformed the downtown, for good or for bad, depending on your position.
Walnut Creek’s happening night life sure keeps the police busy on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I witnessed that first hand when I went out with the police on a ride along last weekend. And, I didn't even go out on the very busy shift last Saturday night/Sunday morning when the officers rounded up 10 drunks and three drunk drivers and carted them off to County Jail in their new special van for just this purpose.
Through this blog, and more recently, I've had the pleasure of meeting officers and administrators in the police department. As it is with those artsy people, I have come away from my contacts with Walnut Creek police with the sense that it is really cool to live and work in this town.
Oh, some more disclosure in terms of my background. Besides being an arts geek, I am also a cop/crime geek. For much of my career as a daily newspaper reporter, I had the police beat, including in Richmond--at a time when there were up to three murders in a single week. (I might still have a trashy crime novel or a few true-crime exposes in my future.) As a police reporter, I came to respect the job that everyone in a police department--from patrol officers to the detectives to the chief--does.
I understand the position of some people that when times get tough, public entities have to make difficult choices about programs to eliminate. I agree that public safety is one of those investments that shouldn’t be shortchanged. I also believe, though, that Walnut Creek needs to keep up its investment in arts and culture. These programs are crucial to the town’s identity and, ultimately, to its economic vitality.
Maybe, as these very difficult budget negotiations continue, I will need to become a parks and recreation geek and a public services geek.