When it comes to local government awarding contracts to businesses, what constitutes a conflict of interest?
And should the mere appearance of a conflict compel public officials to recuse themselves from a vote on such contracts?
Those questions have come up in the wake of the Hall County Board of Commissioners’ 3-2 vote last month to award a $78,000 contract to Civic Plus of Manhattan, Kan., for the redesign of the county’s website. Commissioners Billy Powell and Jeff Stowe voted against it.
A local bidder, Gainesville-based Internet marketing company Full Media, was passed over for the contract despite proposing to complete the redesign for just $22,500.
But in its proposal, Full Media did not include costs for developing a mobile app or providing ongoing maintenance, both of which are included in the contract awarded to Civic Plus.
Stowe, however, said he spoke with representatives from Full Media who assured him they could provide these same services at a lower cost, perhaps no more than $50,000.
But without those costs included in the bid, Commissioners Scott Gibbs and Craig Lutz and Chairman Richard Mecum decided to go with Civic Plus.
And that’s where the issue gets a little complicated.
Gibbs’ nephew once worked for Full Media, but was laid off about a year ago in what CEO Kris Nordholz described as a “professional mismatch.” The two are longtime friends.
But the family ties don’t end there for Gibbs. He said his sister and brother-in-law own a stake in Full Media.
“Needless to say, I caught a little bit of flak” for my vote, Gibbs said.
When it comes to conflicts of interest among public officials, the general rule is no benefit should come as the result of a vote. But even the appearance of favor raises a stink.
“Under the rules of ethics, (Gibbs) can’t vote for something which might be financially rewarding to him or members of his immediate family,” Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock said.
Though Gibbs voted to award the redesign contract to Civic Plus and not Full Media, his family ties to the Gainesville company beg a few questions.
“Had it been the other way around,” Gibbs said, “I would have probably recused myself because that would have been a family member benefiting from my vote.”
But should the fact Full Media was bidding on the contract in the first place have been enough to warrant Gibbs’ recusal? And what about Gibbs’ nephew?
Nordholz said he wasn’t sure whether the nephew’s firing played a role in Gibbs’ vote.
“If it did turn out that there was any relation between that and the vote, then obviously I’d be disappointed,” Nordholz said. “We were disappointed more as taxpayers than anything.”
Nordholz said he wishes he had the chance to meet with all the commissioners to lay out exactly what services his company could provide and at what cost.
Blalock said Gibbs did not disclose his ties to Full Media, but under the circumstances said he believes no conflict of interest exists.
“I don’t think I would have told (Gibbs)” to recuse himself, Blalock added.
Determining where a conflict of interest does exist can be a little tricky, and may depend upon whom you ask.
For example, Stowe said he has a friend who works for Full Media. Does his support for awarding the company the redesign contract then meet the level of a conflict of interest?
In a community like Hall County, small and connected as it is, where some elected officials have lived all their lives, there is bound to be some tie, however loose, between those seeking contracts and those doling out the money.
“If somebody bids on something from this town, odds are we’re going to know them,” Stowe said.
This might even be more the case when it comes to Gibbs.
Lutz, half jokingly and half seriously, said, “Scott’s related to every other person in this county.”
He added that if every commissioner had to recuse himself from voting on contracts because they knew someone who might benefit, there would be a lot of missed votes.
Moreover, it could hamstring the ability of local bidders to win contracts.
“That’s the problem with everything we do,” Gibbs said.