consultants are sandburs

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sean Sullivan and conflict of interest allegations.

Sakry of ABC Newspapers, on May 15, 2013, wrote:

Although Sullivan’s withdrawal letter cites questions asked by Ramsey council members about possible conflicts of interest when it comes to the position with Ramsey and being a sitting Oak Grove councilmember, Councilmember Jason Tossey said there is also a conflict because Sullivan took a campaign donation from Ramsey businessman Jim Deal.

Taxpayer League Chairman Harold Hamilton and his tenant John Kysylyczyn of CD4 GOP and Anoka County Record website fame, have been propagating intense focus upon Sullivan, e.g., here and here. And, here. Initially, I believe, here.

My oh my. Conscious parallelism from within the same Micro Control building in Fridley can prove interesting, if not fully insightful.

From the reporting it does appear Sullivan had a conflict, owing dual loyalties, and still has one much as Elwyn Tinklenberg had while representing roadway grant solicitation responsibilities in both Ramsey and Hassen Township, and where only so much money was available and each project sought funding grants and awards. As with Tinklenberg's case, there was public awareness of the situation, and each employing entity had notice and waived objection. Public notice did rely upon reporting of things, much as with the McGlone-Flaherty employment situation which was, initially, an under-the-radar situation for much of the general public. Full public disclosure, especially when public officials are involved, is essential when trust in the political processes is a goal.

What's the story of Sullivan related events and potential fallout circumstances? Reader help is requested, via comments or email.

____________UPDATE_____________
I have had emails forwarded to me, alleged to be the result of a data disclosure request related to Sullivan's Isanti employment, his Oak Grove council position, his removing himself from consideration as Economic Development head in Ramsey, and the fact Jim Deal, as any citizen might, gave the Sullivan for Oak Grove council election effort a contribution. What I infer from the thread is that the city staff is intent to avoid conflict of interest situations in the future, and to formalize a process including a disclosure form, for gaining full notice of actual, potential, or conjectural conflict situations.

The dimension of Jim Deal's political participation via contribution to the Sullivan campaign appears to not have crossed anyone's minds as material factual background for disclosure as part of Sullivan's applying for the Ramsey opening; until it was publicized by the Taxpayer League's Chairman and his tenant.

Best appearances would have a major vacant-land holder within Ramsey Town Center borders, along with the city's vacant landholdings, disclosed from the outset as a campaign donor; but things did not unfold that way with Sullivan ultimately staying put, both job-wise and on council in Oak Grove.

Having a forward looking thought process, how to better handle things in the future, is or should be the aim of all of us, going forward. However, campaign donations cannot be cause to deny a job applicant for a city position a shot at the job. Somewhat similar to the Deal-to-Sullivan contribution was that of Shane Nelson's $300 contribution to Matt Look's reelection campaign. The fact of that First Amendment exercise by Nelson, giving to a candidate of choice, should not have been cause to deny Nelson an opportunity to apply for the permanent city engineer position that was recently filled, should Nelson have wanted to apply, but it might have been properly considered as one of several facts entering into any employment decision of one or several council members. More importantly, it should have been a publicly disclosed dimension, were Nelson to have successfully sought the engineering post. The often stated aim of "avoiding even the appearance of impropriety" can be best fostered by public notice and awareness of such dimensions.

All the more reason for City of Ramsey to formulate as strong a conflict of interest avoidance and notice policy, and to implement such a thing ASAP. My hope would have been to have seen it a done thing already, since January 1 was months ago, and the new council members took office then at the start of this year. I.e., there were months already for the conflict of interest situation to have been tuned and tightened, but with an apparent lack of will even within the streamlining consultancy arrangements put in place in January having been finished but without conflict of interest reforms recommended. That said, THERE IS NO BETTER TIME FOR REFORM THAN THE PRESENT, GOING FORWARD INTO THE FUTURE. The past is as it was, the time to move is NOW, and clearly so.

____________UPDATE___________
8:27 AM 6/11/2013
Where to start an update? Harold Hamilton has been quite vocal, as with his dislike of anyone named Erhart. But seriously, should we take Harold seriously? This is the man operating via taxpayer league, and by personal means he has said is nobody's business but his.  His Taxpayer League has sued to not have to disclose its cash flows, and has used the Citizens United lawyer for his purposes of withholding sunshine from his contributions and other spending aimed at influencing the outcomes of elections. Yet he bitched louder and longer about Citizens for Responsible Government playing his game last election, and has been the key bitching point about Sean Sullivan having had campaign contributions from Jim Deal. Is that two-faced? You decide. Harold seems a scold who will tlurn a blind eye when it suits him. Ditto, Anoka County Record. What was their official view on the Flaherty-McGlone job arrangement? Deadly silent? Oh, my.

Jason Tossey did not like the Jim Deal contributions to Sullivan's Oak Grove campaign. Why not?

Sullivan's job in Isanti plus a council membership in Oak Grove is a more fundamental thing - an ongoing situation where if each town has road needs, applies for road funding help from bigger governments - county, state and federal level - and there's only so much money to go around, the conflict is inherent. However, should it be that a public spirited citizen cannot be candidate for an elective public service role, a council stipend not being a true "salary" in any sustaining sense, because of such an inherent conflict with a paying day job in another governmental jurisdiction?

There are good arguments either way, and our law - the law our officials are sworn to honor - is that it is a right to run for elective office, and a First Amendment "money talks" right to give to campaigns or outside election advocacy effort [PACs]. Jason Tossey is favorably inclined toward those calling themselves "Liberty Republicans" and he must intellectually square his worries about Jim Deal's campaign spending with the notion it is a fundamental Liberty in our system for Jim Deal to do what Jim Deal has done, elections wise, just as Harold Hamilton has the Liberty in our system to move and act and speak and publish as he has [directly or via surrogates]. Not that anyone has to listen or be persuaded, only that he's a right to his various soapboxes and we have our "grain of salt."

Now, that said, Randy Backous left a comment that deserves posting in the main thread where more may read it:

This issue is getting way out of hand. I can't be sure who knew what, or when they knew it, but I feel like I have to present my position in all of this publicly somewhere, if for no other reason than to preserve my own sanity. This desperate desire to find some sort of scandal in all of this is laughable. If this is all that the short-sellers can come up with, I think we're way ahead of the last council.

Make no mistake that I truly believe a conflict of interest exists in this situation. It is true; you cannot serve two masters. However, The City of Ramsey need not have been concerned with this. If any sane person would take just a second to stop and think about this, they would realize that the problem exists in Oak Grove, the city in which he serves as an elected official and on their EDA. If he were to have a prospect interested in both Ramsey and Oak Grove, where do people really think he would try to land them? In the city for which he serves as an elected official, or in the city which gives him a paycheck? Obviously, to preserve his livelihood he would be landing businesses in Ramsey in every opportunity possible. If I were serving on the Oak Grove City Council, I would be as concerned as they are. In Oak Grove it is an issue; here it is not.

Apparently he accepted a campaign contribution from Jim Deal. So what!? Don't we all accept campaign contributions? Does that call our integrity into question? Besides, in the event Jim Deal brought projects forward, Mr. Sullivan would not have been a decision maker. The City Council makes the decisions. I fail to see what campaign contributions have to do with anything.

The real issue here is the selection process and the way in which this information came forward. That is the real problem here. Scandal? No. Problem? Definitely. As the Chair of the HRA, I was not even aware that interviewing was taking place. Since this will be a dual HRA/EDA position and the bulk of the salary will be paid from the HRA, I felt it appropriate to be included. As the Personnel Committee Chair, Councilmember Tossey was also unaware. Worst of all, Mayor Strommen was not even aware. By the time I had found out and asked to be included, I was unable to fit the interviews into my schedule.

I don't believe there was any sinister plan to exclude any of us on the part of the City Administrator, HR Director, the EDA or anyone else. I truly believe it was a simple and innocent lapse in communication. The notion of a plot to exclude us is absurd. You can't slip something past a person who has to vote on the final outcome.

From what I understand, the conflict of interest issue was discussed and it was determined not to be an issue from Ramsey's point of view.

For the record, I was pretty upset when all of this came out and I had a pretty intense conversation with our City Administrator. I was one person who told him that I would not support the hiring. Unfortunately, I believe I may have been the tipping point which caused Mr. Sullivan to withdraw his name from consideration. After I had calmed down and thought about all the points I made above, I called Kurt back and told him that I would support the hire after all. By then Mr. Sullivan had already informed Kurt that he was withdrawing. It is unfortunate because I believe he would have served us well and he would have brought a lot of tax base into the city.

We did't cover up anything because we didn't even get a chance to discuss it. Had he not withdrawn, we would have discussed the issue in the Council meeting on camera in front of the residents. All of the points would have been out in the open.

I hate to disappoint but maybe if we keep working real hard we can create a scandal truly worthy of all this non-sense.

That was cathartic.

The mayor, in response to an email, emailed back:

We discussed conflict of interest policy at our last council worksession, so it is not on the back burner at all. We struggled a bit with purpose and how far to take this, but we had a good discussion with more work on the policy to come.

Unfortunately, work sessions are untelevised. Yet the fact of discussions happening is encouraging, in terms of ultimate policy making and setting of procedures. My thoughts to the mayor were in the main part:

If we are constrained to a "money talks" view of political contribution/actions having First Amendment dimensions, as the Supreme Court has held, then what's wrong with Jim Deal giving to a campaign? Or with Citizens for Responsible
Government, last election?

The same applies to Shane Nelson's giving to Matt Look's campaign while interim consulting city engineer for City of Ramsey per the then existing contracting out of engineering duties. He can participate in political giving as a right, and others can note and criticize or praise it. I also noted to the mayor that campaign financing cannot be too constrained, particularly for those believing in Liberty, the liberty to be an active part of the political two-party system we now endure as a nation and locally.

And, is it good policy to put constraints on that for public employees? The question arose when some Ramsey employees supported opposition candidates against incumbents, last election. They have that right, and would retaliation be too chilling a thing against basic rights?

With regard to such a conundrum, I wrote the mayor:

Flaherty giving a job is different, qualitatively, from contributing to a campaign of a candidate of choice. The gross directness of giving the spouse a job is intolerable. Why not suggest the council pose the question to the charter commission, as to what conflict of interest alternatives might be written into things at the charter level, what's better an ordinance, what's better as a set of regular initial training and audit procedures?

I make that suggestion as one recently appointed to the charter commission, where I believe two past candidates for council still serve, each with a legal training and experience, and each being aware of the Liberty dimensions that cannot be overly burdened.

The boxes of politics adage applies. The soapbox and ballot box, more than the jury box, are where conflicts should be addressed, with voters making choices where positions and actions have been aired in press and other outlets so that voters are informed of fact and opinion, with me saying some things and Harold Hamilton saying other things.

The question of what might be misdemeanor conflict of interest, a crime, is apart from what might be a subject of pro or anti commentary, with the ballot box being the arbitrator. Things short of criminal behavior, criminal conflicts of interest, may be the subject of voter and commentator disapprobation. The problem is the infrequency of having a ballot box chance to revise government. And what may transpire in intervening times. It is what we have, and there is only the soap box in the interim, unless litigious personalities seek out the jury box over perceived grievances. Hopefully, the last box, the cartridge box, seldom to never is at play.

WRAPUP: What Backous wrote makes sense. Some, outside of the direct process, made objection to the Sullivan situation, in ways that resulted in a resumed search for a Ramsey Economic Development department head on staff. Information flows re Sullivan were suboptimal. It is not as if the entire metro area will not present other sound choices for thew job besides Sullivan. I know Sean from his past service on Ramsey's staff. I like and trust him. But the process has worked out as it has. History is set even though opinions about it can be revised and extended forever. Moving on, conflict of interest policy still must be faced as an issue, and a person must be hired to an open and necessary job (with history teaching that using outside consultancies for economic development is an imperfect process when suggested as an alternative to hiring and supervising a staff person).

___________FURTHER UPDATE_____________
5:25 PM 6/11/2013
Thoughtful comments, especially when by public officials, often are posted via update rather than being left less conspicious. This, a comment so moved, by Jason Tossey:

I find the denial of a "scandal" perplexing. I am not sure who is uttering those accusations. Taking a look at the facts it is quite clear that not one elected official at the city of Ramsey appears to have conducted themselves in a scandalous manner. But what is concerning is staff's omission that Mr. Sullivan is a current council member of a neighboring city, and did take campaign donations from a Ramsey businessman while applying for a position in the city of Ramsey that has great authority over subsidies and low interest loans for Ramsey businesses. That is what borders scandalous, but most likely is nothing more than neglectful communication.

Based on this whole situation, I have decided that the position of Economic Development Manager lends itself to the perception of conflict along with the obvious perception of cronyism. Therefore, I will not support filling this position regardless who is offered the job. It is important to ask yourself if "pro business" is necessarily "pro-capitalism"? I do not believe that to be the case.

Some actual items provide me, if posted, might flesh out detail. However, enough detail is published in this post with updates.

1 comment:

Jason Tossey said...

I find the denial of a "scandal" perplexing. I am not sure who is uttering those accusations. Taking a look at the facts it is quite clear that not one elected official at the city of Ramsey appears to have conducted themselves in a scandalous manner. But what is concerning is staff's omission that Mr. Sullivan is a current council member of a neighboring city, and did take campaign donations from a Ramsey businessman while applying for a position in the city of Ramsey that has great authority over subsidies and low interest loans for Ramsey businesses. That is what borders scandalous, but most likely is nothing more than neglectful communication.

Based on this whole situation, I have decided that the position of Economic Development Manager lends itself to the perception of conflict along with the obvious perception of cronyism. Therefore, I will not support filling this position regardless who is offered the job. It is important to ask yourself if "pro business" is necessarily "pro-capitalism"? I do not believe that to be the case.