Board Duplication a Conflict of Interest?

A copy of this entry appears, with a different heading, on the South Kitsap blog. Chris Henry, South Kitsap reporter

An article in today’s Kitsap Sun gives details of a ballot measure regarding the proposed merger of Karcher Creek Sewer District and Annapolis Water District. Although the boards of both districts have approved he merger and the two have been under a joint operating agreement since June – sharing staff, computers and other resources – voters who live within each district must still give the final nod to the merger.

As it happens, Bill Huntington and Jim Hart both serve on the boards of both Karcher Creek and Annapolis. Huntington — husband of incumbent Port of Bremerton commissioner Mary Ann Huntington — is up for re-election, facing former Annapolis commissioner Jeannie Screws. Hart is running unopposed for re-election as Karcher Creek commissioner.

I asked Larry Curles, general manager for both districts, if this represented a conflict of interest. He said no, that Huntington and Hart’s experience with both water and sewer helps them do a better job of representing the interests of rate payers in each district. He also said having two people on both boards makes this an ideal time for the merger.

A similar situation could evolve in Manchester, where, if Steve Pedersen beats opponent Mark Rebelowski for position 3 of the Port of Manchester race, there would be two people on the boards of the port and the Manchester Water District. Pedersen serves on the water district board. Jim Strode currently serves on both boards. Rebelowski, being careful to say he has nothing against Strode or Pedersen, raised the issue of conflict of interest. Pedersen has said he could see how people might see that as a concern, but he promises a squeaky clean approach if he wins. Strode has said the two districts already share office staff and may consider sharing more to save money.

As the cost for local government entities to do business goes up and up, mergers may become more and more popular. South Kitsap Commissioner Jan Angel has said the county may in the future consider going regional with some of its functions to share costs with other counties, that are also experiencing tight budgets.

As development proceeds throughout the county, sewer, water and ports (with their power to raise taxes for economic development) will play a larger role in local politics. The law currently allows people to sit on the board of more than one local entity. Should we be taking a second look at this? Playing devil’s advocate here, what’s the worst that could happen?

3 thoughts on “Board Duplication a Conflict of Interest?

  1. Why is it when a “conflict of interest” issue is brought up the people involved always say it is not a problem and everything will be ok? If you are elected to a position the voters expect you to conduct business for the best interest of those who elected you. If you are on multiple boards or commissions at some point you will be on both sides of the fence, so who do you satisfy? I think most who hold multiple positions have an agenda of their own. They have taken the time and effort to run for more than one position and they expect to be able to accomplish something. They may say they have the voter in mind and will be fair, but I truly think they really have already decided what they direction they want irregardless of what any group of voters may think. We could end up with a few people making very expensive decisions for various districts across many voting boundaries. How many members of a single family sitting on multiple boards does it take to control the tax revenue for a single county? What if that family had various business interests in the county? Thats right, no conflict of interest would be discovered or admitted. It would be business as usual, just pity the poor taxpayer.

  2. Roger,
    You make some good points that I hadn’t thought of. Thank you.

    My take was that it was ok for the boards to merge since they already work so closely together and could accomplish more as one entity.

    Board members are given stipends at levels set by the state. Many of the board members who serve on multiple boards don’t take these stipends saving the taxpayers money. They have saved the districts thousands of dollars.

    They hope to save even more by merging the districts.

  3. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like an issue to have family members on different boards. But when that happens, it creates an impression of impropriety when the different boards create a partnership agreement or play off the other’s activity.

    An example of this is the procurement of a controversial membrane treatment system by one board, when the husband of one of the board members serves on the other board that took a very controversial trip abroad to review the membrane system. It gives the appearance of one board attempting to validate the other by procuring the system to show what a good decision it was for the other board to take the trip to Europe.

    I’m not saying that anything improper was done, but it does raise legitimate questions regarding conflict of interest that wouldn’t be as legitimate if the parties weren’t immediately related.

    It could very well be that the decision to use the system is a solid business decision. But there is an appearance of the possibility of other motivations because of the family involvement on both boards. This creates a public perception of working outside of the normal public process.

    As for the Karcher/Annapolis merger, I see that as a good thing. That the same individuals sit on both boards probably helped demonstrate that a merger would reduce redundancy and improve efficiency.

    Kathryn Simpson

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