Archive » March 27, 2008
By Edmond Jacoby, Editor
Everybody seems to know that itís a better thing to do what one should than to do what one can. That knowledge, however, often fails to guide people in their decision-making.
We have an example of that right here in the valley: a case of somebody who doesnít quite understand the meaning of the biblical injunction in Luke 16:13. Thatís where Jesus is quoted as saying something about serving two masters.
What he says is you canít do it. Why?
ďNo domestic is able to serve two lords, for either the one he will hate, and the other he will love; or one he will hold to, and of the other he will be heedless.Ē There are an endless number of translations, but they all are more-or-less the same and the message they convey is the same.
The language of the New Testament is remarkable in that it is probably the earliest expression of what we call today a conflict of interests.
Put the thought into a modern context, and you have something like this: an advocate for two parties can never be relied upon to pursue with equal dedication the goals or needs of both parties if their interests compete.
Thatís exactly whatís going on in Solvang.
The mayor of the town, Linda Jackson, also is the executive director of the Solvang Chamber of Commerce. Surely she believes, as the members of the chamber probably all believe, that whatís good for the townís business community is good for the town. But that isnít necessarily true. Sometimes advancing the interests of business is detrimental to the private interests of at least some of the townspeople. So, on its face, there is a potential that Jackson, representing privately the interests of the townís business community, might be confronted with an awkward choice between supporting a policy that benefits the chamberís membership at the expense of the cityís private citizens, or another that benefits the citizenry but is detrimental to the business community.
Itís not a question of whether Jackson is an honorable mayor. Weíre sure that she is. Indeed, all the members of the city council are honorable people.
Yet honor is sometimes not enough. If forced to make a choice between whatís good for the broader mass of the cityís citizens and whatís good for the business interests who employ her, how will Jackson choose? And is it fair that she be forced to make that choice?
In general, politicians in California solve problems like that by saying, in effect, ďif that situation ever arises, Iíll leave the room and let others make the decision.Ē Itís called recusing oneís self.
As it happens, just such a situation did arise in Solvang ó in fact, it came up twice in two weeks. And both times, Jackson refused to recuse herself. She sided, and voted in her capacity as a member of the city council, with a narrow interest against the broader interest of the city at large.
Jackson maintained that, after consulting with the cityís attorney, she concluded that she did not have to recuse herself. But that opinion, and her decision to cast a ballot while serving two masters who had interests in conflict, was based on what we think was a very narrow interpretation of the circumstances, which were these: the chamber, for which she works, received a grant of $24,000 from the Chumash Foundation, which is funded by the Chumash Casino. The grant apparently was presented to the chamber the very same day that the council was considering a proposal to send a letter to the office of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposing expansion of gambling at the casino. But her employment by the chamber did not create a conflict of interests, she was told, because the chamber is a not-for-profit organization. We think thatís a pretty narrow loophole.
The letter has not been sent because both times it came up, Jackson voted not to send it. Her vote gave the ďnoĒ faction a 1-vote majority.
Might she have voted the same way if the casino had not given money to the chamber? Of course she might. She might have done so if she had never worked for the chamber, too. Thatís not the point.
Government in this country, in this state, in this county, and even in Solvang, only works because people have faith that clean hands are attending to their business. We respect our governmentís actions because we believe the process is fair. It is therefore incumbent upon everyone involved in the process not only to be fair and honest in their public actions, but also to appear to be so. Itís not good enough for the process to be fair: it also must look fair.
And when somebody who works for an entity that appears to have a stake in the decision being made disregards the objections of her peers and the public and votes to advance the interests of that one stakeholder, it is irrelevant that her vote might be based on reason or on beliefs that have nothing to do with her employment. It still looks bad.
When push came to shove and Jackson was asked to step aside for appearanceís sake, she refused to listen to the request. It can be fairly said of Jackson, as it was of another Jackson in 1861, that, under fire, she stood her ground like a stone wall.
We donít think Solvang needs its own Stonewall Jackson, and the voters of Solvang donít need to see her stonewalling her colleagues on the council, who know good and well, even if she does not, that the people they serve want and need to believe that the system works the way itís supposed to, and that the deck isnít stacked against them.
Thatíll be 2 cents, please.