As we were recently reminded by citizen activist Travis Whitehead of Queensbury, when you are weighing the words of municipal attorneys, you should keep in mind that they work for and are paid by the municipality’s board, not its citizens.
You would hope the interests of, say, the citizens of Warren County would correspond with the interests of the county’s supervisors, but that isn’t always the case.
Whitehead recently suggested that a vote cast by Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Matt Sokol to fund the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board involved a conflict of interest, because Sokol’s parents received a loan from that board.
Sokol asked for an opinion from the county attorney, Mary Kissane, and she gave him one: His vote did not constitute a conflict of interest.
So first, as Whitehead suggested, we should remember that Kissane works for and represents the supervisors. You could argue that having her give an opinion on a matter like this, which could affect a supervisor’s reputation, is a conflict of interest for her.
Since Sokol is one of her bosses, we would expect her to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you read her letter, it seems she did just that.
First, she argued that Sokol only voted to fund the Regional Planning Board after his parents had already applied to it for a loan, so there was no need for him to abstain. This is silly. The county periodically votes on funding for the Regional Planning Board, and Sokol had voted in favor of that funding both before and after his parents applied for the loan.
Next, she argued that the money from the county — $7,000 a year — is used for the Regional Planning Board’s operating expenses, not its loan fund, so no conflict existed.
This, too, is silly. The money was going to the Regional Planning Board, and the Regional Planning Board was making the decisions on the loans.
The conflict arose because of the influence Sokol could be seen to have with the members of the board, and the effect that influence could have on their lending decisions. Sokol would not have to intervene — knowledge of the family connection could have been enough to influence board members.
We aren’t accusing the members of the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board of being influenced in the Sokols’ favor. We are saying it’s human nature to regard favorably the people who give you money.
Perception is a critical element of conflict of interest. Sokol might not have perceived a conflict, but reasonable people would, so he should have abstained from the vote.
At a minimum, as soon as he knew his parents were seeking a loan from an organization the county helps to fund, he should have revealed that to the rest of the board and the public.
This situation — the county funding a little-known organization that provides substantial loans to local businesses — is rife with potential for conflicts. Current and former county supervisors serve on the board of the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board. The whole setup has an incestuous feel.
We’d like to see a thorough airing of the Regional Planning Board’s loan review process. How are applications solicited? What criteria are used in deciding which businesses get loans and how much they get?
The good thing about the dispute over Sokol’s vote is it has drawn attention to this organization, which receives public funding but appears to operate with very little oversight. Supervisors should address that and answer the many questions that have arisen about the board and the loans it makes.
Until then, we believe Sokol has a conflict of interest or at least the appearance of a conflict when it comes to the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board and should recuse himself from any further votes or involvement with this organization.