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Conflict? Allegations prompt review by EDC

WILLMAR — Allegations of improper voting prompted a review of conflict-of-interest policies last week by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The review found nothing specific to back up the allegations. The discussion led to some sharply worded debate, however, over how to recognize and handle it when a board member is thought to have a conflict of interest.

Details about the allegations — who made them and whom they were against — weren’t publicly shared. But Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, said they involved a recent vote approving a one-year extension of the EDC’s lease for office space in the Centre Place building in downtown Willmar.

He said it had been “brought to my attention” that one of the operating board members should have abstained from voting because of a conflict of interest.

Farther into the discussion, it was revealed that the alleged conflict of interest involved the business relationship between one and possibly more board members and Gary Geiger, the owner of the building in which the EDC rents office space.

A majority of the operating board members found no cause for concern, saying the relationship was at an arm’s length and held no opportunity for personal gain by someone on the board.

“I think I’m reasonable and I do not see that as a conflict,” said Bob Carlson.

Guidance on conflict-of-interest issues is somewhat sparse, acknowledged Mike Burgett, attorney for the Economic Development Commission.

“For voting purposes you have to look to the governing documents of the organization to see what rules are in place,” he said.

The joint powers agreement and bylaws of the Economic Development Commission address this only fleetingly, said Burgett.

The next authority is Robert’s Rules of Order, which state that board members should abstain from voting if they have a conflict of interest, defined as having a direct personal or pecuniary interest in the matter being voted on, Burgett said.

“You could probably spend a fair amount of time debating or criticizing what each of those words means,” he said.

What’s clear is that board members cannot be compelled either to vote on an issue or to recuse themselves from voting, he said. But if a board member breaches the ethical obligation to avoid conflicts of interest, that person could face disciplinary action by the rest of the board, Burgett said.

EDC operating board and governing board members are asked to sign conflict of interest disclosure pledges when they’re appointed to the board, and most have done so.

Openness is the best policy, urged operations board member Bob Enos. “It probably wouldn’t hurt to consider full disclosure because that is what state statute requires.”

He added, “Maybe we could all stand to get some training on the issue.”

Bruce Peterson, development director for the city of Willmar and a nonvoting member of the EDC operating board, said board members have an individual duty to be ethical but also have a responsibility to the organization they govern.

“Bottom line is you’ve got to have decisions that are in the best interests of EDC regardless of perception,” he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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