January 04, 2012 - They say that politics makes strange bedfellows.
Well, I found out just how true that old adage is when on Friday, I found myself in the position of defending a member of the Oxford Board of Education.
A few people posted comments on the Oxford Leader's Facebook page inquiring as to whether or not it was a conflict of interest for Carol Mitchell – local Realtor and school board trustee – to broker the deal for the 56 acres of land that some private investors from China are in the process of purchasing so they can build student housing along with a hotel and convention center.
In a nutshell, my answer was no.
Why? Because the pending sale is between private parties; the school district isn't technically involved. Private investors are buying the land from a private party and they plan to use their money – not taxpayer money – to develop it.
It's not a school district project. The district is not buying the land. The district will not own the land. The district is not financing any of the construction that's planned for it.
In fact, I'm extremely grateful it's not a school district project because if it was A) they'd be spending tax dollars; B) it would be able to completely bypass the township planning process and ignore local input; and C) the property would be removed from the tax roll.
The only real connection to the district is that the visiting foreign students slated to live in these proposed private dormitories are supposed to attend Oxford Schools.
I saw no conflict here. I talked to an attorney I trust very much and he saw no conflict as of now.
Now, it would be a different story if Mitchell was brokering a real estate deal involving the school district as either the buyer or seller. That would be a definite conflict.
If the school district was expending taxpayer money for this project, that would be a definite conflict.
If the school board was required to give any sort of approval for this project, that would be a definite conflict.
But we've been told it's going to be a completely private development. Unless something changes such as the district becoming involved in the financing or entering into a contract with these investors, there's no conflict with Mitchell being involved in a private venture.
That's her business and she's entitled to earn a living.
After all, we're not communists. Ho, ho, ho.
Believe me, if I thought there was a conflict here, I'd have been railing against it in my column week after week.
In my 12½ years with this newspaper, I've seen many conflicts involving public officials.
The largest and most disgusting conflict involved the late Renee Donovan, who served on the village council from 2001-06. During her time in office, the village spent $185,917 on computer-related equipment and services provided by a company owned by her husband and operated out of the couple's Oxford Lakes home. Although she abstained from votes concerning these expenditures, Donovan still directly profited from them. It was wrong.
Then there was former Oxford Township Trustee Pat Fitchena, who from 2004-08 continued to hold elected office even though she was employed full-time as the director of the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA).
Given the township board helps fund and oversee NOTA, there was a definite conflict there, in my opinion – even though the township attorney argued otherwise. In November 2005, Fitchena was not permitted by the board to abstain from voting and she ended up casting the tie-breaking vote to increase the township's funding for NOTA by $22,000.
In both of these examples, the elected official was profiting from the taxpayers and to me, that's the worst form of conflict there is. Sadly, in both cases, there was no public outcry.
In Mitchell's case, she's not profiting from the taxpayers. She's not using her voting power on the school board for personal gain.
Granted, if she hadn't been a school board member, she most likely would not have met these Chinese investors, so her elected position absolutely benefited her in that sense.
But legally, there's no conflict in making connections like that. People in business and government do it everyday.
Let's face it, the whole reason many – not all – local business people volunteer for or get elected to boards is to make contacts, promote themselves, keep abreast of new opportunities on the horizon or advance their interests.
At one point, the Oxford School Board had three, count'em three, Realtors serving on it.
Do we really believe that's because they were all so very passionate about education?
Or maybe it's a little easier to sell houses to parents when you can tell them how great the school system is because you just happen to serve on the board of education.
Self-interest is everywhere. It's what makes the world go round. But self-interest doesn't automatically equal a conflict of interest in the legal or ethical sense.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.