Saturday, November 30, 2013

Conflict of Interest: Take Two

It's true that I could have done more research prior to venturing into this topic. But I was hoping to generate a conversation and collaborative fact-finding mission (and I am glad to see the Facebook thread is starting to generate just the kind of information we need to pursue this issue).
I am not going to apologize for asking questions, and I don't think there was anything frantic or persecuting about them. But I would like to elaborate on my questions in a way that makes my concerns clearer.
I am one among many who are frustrated by how hard it has been to get regulations in place that adequately protect core values like public health, safety, and community integrity.
When I try to figure out why that is, I chalk it up to a mix of two reasons: 1. Our elected officials agree with my conception of the common good and did the best they could within the Texas and federal legal system, but the system just doesn’t allow for what we think is best. 2. Our elected officials disagree with me, but they are working from some other reasonable conception of the common good.
I never chalk it up to: 3. Our elected officials are not working from any reasonable conception of the common good, but are in fact seeking their own private gain. That is, I never assume a conflict of interest, which I take to be in this case: Using public office to reap private rewards.
 I believe that everyone on City Council approaches fracking (and all other policy issues) with nothing but a genuine commitment to seek the common good (public interest) as they see it. That is my default mentality, and it would take a lot to convince me otherwise.
OK, but what about this business with Mr. King? If I don’t believe something is wrong here, why raise the questions?
It’s because on its surface this sure appears like a conflict of interest even though it may not actually be a conflict of interest. What I mean by “actual” here is not the facts about the interests involved (e.g., what percentage of income counts as a conflict). Rather, I mean a situation where a person’s moral judgment is biased by the prospects of private gain. I could imagine someone in Mr. King’s situation being able to set aside considerations of private gain when it comes time to make a decision. If it was me, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I let even the slightest consideration of private gain creep into such an important public policy. I have no reason to believe Mr. King doesn’t share that same basic impulse of conscience. I did not and am not impugning his character.
But I can also imagine myself in his situation and deciding that it would be best to recuse myself on policies impacting EagleRidge. I might think that, because people cannot have direct access to my moral judgment, they may suspect that I am biased even though I would know I am not. And this suspicion might undermine our public policy efforts.  
That’s why my questioning was about the problematic appearance of a conflict here. That’s why I wrote this at the end: “even apparent conflicts of interest can be a problem, because they can undermine trust in government and the legitimacy of its authority.”
The standstill negotiations are a longshot, but at least they continue dialogue and the possibility of improvements. But they are so fragile that this apparent conflict of interest could derail them. They might produce something worthwhile, but the public might dismiss the outcome because it resulted from a biased process – even if there was no actual conflict (as I define it or as defined by legal facts).
I am trying to point to this potential problem and open a space to demonstrate how there is no actual conflict of interest, which would make the appearance go away. Sunshine is the best remedy for apparent conflicts of interest. Being silent on this (even if one thinks it is baseless) is not going to help. And even though it was disclosed earlier, it should be made public again given how much renewed importance it has taken on.
Unfortunately, my earlier post only fanned the flames I was hoping we could squelch with an open and honest conversation. But perhaps it is not too late. And hopefully this post helps to reset the tenor and focus of that conversation.


  1. Do you recall a time that King has voted any other way than with industry? I remember that he has been the lone vote before and always voting for industry. It seems that no amount of information or emerging science or pleading from residents who will suffer makes any difference to him.

    So, I propose a different conflict of interest is possible, one where a person's mind is completely closed to hearing anything other than their world view. In this case, a person could be so rooted in their belief system-- "my daddy had a well in his backyard"-- that they are incapable of looking at a situation objectively.

    This would be similar to someone who is a racist being on a jury to decide the fate of a minority who was charged with a crime.

    1. Now this is very interesting - good addition to the conversation.

  2. I would add that many in power think and actually believe whatever is good for me and mine is good for all - all the while not allowing oneself to step into the shoes of those who are affected. It is one thing to make a choice of having a dirty dangerous industrial operation on your doorstep if you've chosen money over everything else. It is quite another issue if you make decisions that put it on the doorsteps of others who (1) are not getting paid, (2) stand to have a huge property value loss and suffer from health issues that lead to premature death, and (3) endanger the health and welfare of the public at large.

    1. Great post Phyllis. I think your point regarding the ability of our elected officials to step into the shoes of others is right on the money—no pun intended. I’ve seen you champion for everyone’s voice to be heard and I just wish more people felt the same way. Keep up the good work.

    2. Phyllis - Care to weigh in on the proposed notification proposed for Ryan Ranch wells or the controversy over the Vantage neighborhood well?

  3. Some see no problem simply because they haven't had the experience of having any "problem" with it...and when they hear of others who do have a problem with it they simply decide that there will always be people with problems with anything the city does. It will take electing people who see all of it as problematic to solve it.

    Candidates who boldly run with this as their issue and who can raise thousands of dollars and inspire volunteers to help them win and then do win ~ this is the reality about all of it.

  4. It looks like eagle ridge is fracing there wells near Vintage. I read the plat notes that city of Denton tells us they must follow. The “water consumption” plat note states the fracture stimulation process (fracing) should only take approximately 8 hours. Why are we being told this process could last for days or weeks?