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Our View: Tips for transparency can go beyond Two Harbors

From the editorial: "A hyper commitment to transparency and to avoiding even the appearance or suggestion that an elected or other public role is inappropriately being used for personal or business gain helps to maintain public trust in government."

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Dave Granlund / Cagle Cartoons
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A Minnesota Office of the State Auditor investigative report last week found that Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson may not have disclosed interests in organizations that went before the City Council. The report also included a number of recommendations that, if followed, promises to help the small North Shore city avoid future potential conflicts of interest.

The recommendations are good advice — and worth considering by all public servants committed to transparency and accountability, especially those in smaller cities and towns where elected officials often rise to public posts because they’re already also heavily involved in business, nonprofit, and other aspects of where they live.

“It’s a good idea for every community to just take a moment, stop, and get everything on the table up front before going forward. That’s just smart,” Minnesota state Auditor Julie Blaha said in an exclusive interview Friday with the News Tribune Opinion page.

“It’s good to just take a moment and say, ‘All right, what are my interests? Where are my investments? Where is my property? Where is my income coming from? What is my family doing?’ Taking that moment and thinking about those things is important,” Blaha said. “Ultimately, you want to protect the (public’s) trust and protect the quality of the decisions you make. Your conflicts of interest ultimately can weaken your decision-making ability. You have to be aware of that.”

Staying aware of conflicts can be assisted by completing and then reviewing and updating every year economic-interest disclosure statements, as the report urged. State-level officials, as well as some in larger cities, already prepare and regularly review such statements. It’s not a law or a mandate, but “a really good practice,” Blaha said, for all elected and other community leaders.

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Smaller cities, she acknowledged, may be leery of the resources required to maintain such statements. But, “I think the legal costs of a conflict of interest are worse,” she said. “When you reduce this kind of risk, long term you’re going to save money. Mistakes are costly, both in terms of trust and hard dollars. It’s just a good idea.”

The report also recommended that those doing the public’s work diligently record voting abstentions, especially the conflict-of-interest reasons for abstaining from voting.

“Lay it out there. Documenting and recording everything shows that, ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘we’re thinking about this. We put it down. We’re being intentional.’ It’s transparent. … You’re stopping and you’re checking yourself. That makes for better decisions long-term.”

Further, the report urges city officials, elected or not, to serve only in a non-voting capacity when on the boards of nonprofits that help local government. In some instances, Blaha said, an elected official may have to cut ties with a nonprofit. Hard choices sometimes have to be made with regard to which role is more important to someone. “You have to decide,” she said. “When you have competing interests, pick one and focus there. It’s just the cleanest way to go and the most effective way to go.”

A hyper commitment to transparency and to avoiding even the appearance or suggestion that an elected or other public role is inappropriately being used for personal or business gain helps to maintain public trust in government. The value in that can’t be overstated. The auditor’s words and her office’s report last week offer some sound advice — that need to be considered and heeded well beyond Two Harbors.

“This moment is a lesson for all of us,” Blaha said. “Having these conversations is always smart.”

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