Determining conflicts of interest can be tricky, but when you’re a public official and your parents stand to benefit from your vote, that is not a close call.
That is a conflict of interest.
The right thing for public officials to do when they have conflicts of interest is to remove themselves from the discussion and abstain from any votes. Matt Sokol, a supervisor at-large for Queensbury, admitted that earlier this week, in reference to a vote he took to approve annual county funding of $7,000 to the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board.
Sokol voted for making the payment, but later said he probably should have abstained.
“It didn’t dawn on me, because I’m not benefiting from it financially,” he said.
He was referring to an outstanding loan of $50,000 from the Regional Planning Board to DLS Enterprises, a Sokol family corporation that, he said, was founded by and benefits his parents.
At the very least, Sokol should have explained the circumstances to the other supervisors. Had he done that, we’re sure, he would have ended up abstaining from the vote, because the rest of the board would have been bound to conclude he had a conflict of interest.
Matt Sokol signed for the loan, along with four other family members, because, he said, he was asked at the last minute to take part in the closing. But that doesn’t matter — a loan that benefits his parents benefits him.
This is as straightforward as conflict of interest gets. Sokol should have revealed his family’s loan, and he should have abstained from the vote.
The question is: What happens now? Sokol’s vote made a difference, because supervisors were split on whether to approve the funding. If he had abstained, the payment would not have been approved.
Payment may have already been made, but if not, the board should reconsider. What supervisors can do is take a closer look at the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board, which somehow has functioned without much oversight while handing out millions of dollars in loans to local enterprises.
Attention was drawn to this setup by Travis Whitehead, a resident of Queensbury who has made it his business in recent years to ensure that not a dollar of taxpayer money gets wasted or spent improperly by local government officials. He and Queensbury Supervisor Doug Beaty are raising questions about the loan program, in particular its high rate of delinquencies.
A thorough, public review of the Regional Planning Board and its loan program is called for. What criteria does the board use in awarding the loans? How do businesses find out about the program? And speaking of conflicts of interest, shouldn’t the board have flagged the Sokols’ application from the start, since Matt Sokol was a Warren County supervisor?
Perhaps, it would have been fair to allow the Sokol family to apply like anyone else. But any time a business associated with a county official is seeking such a loan, the county board of supervisors should be notified. That way, conflicts of interest such as the one that arose in this case can be prevented.
This episode may, in the end, turn out for the best, because it has shined a light on an important loan program that has been conducting business without much notice. Any time a program is putting millions of taxpayer dollars at stake, it should operate with robust oversight.
If nothing else, this episode will, we hope, have taught Matt Sokol a lesson and reinforced for all the county supervisors the importance of following rules against conflicts of interest and avoiding them whenever they arise.
Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rob Forcey, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representatives Bob Tatko, Carol Merchant and Eric Mondschein.