Roth says no dual roles
County candidate pledges to avoid realty deals while on public board.
By Cara Froedge, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
July 16, 2008
Citing a conflxict of interest, one county commission candidate has pledged not to be involved in real estate transactions if elected to the public board.
Republican Rick Roth announced last week that if he is elected, neither he nor any member of his immediate or extended family will be party to any real-estate transactions in Teton County that have not been available to the general public for 30 days. Roth also said neither he nor his wife would accept a position with any local private or political organization that might have business before the commission during his term.
“With houses that in the Midwest would sell for $150,000 bringing $750,000 here in Teton County and requests for new or expanded property development ... on almost every weekly agenda, the potential for our elected officials to be put in uncompromising positions is only going to increase if commission members insist on keeping their dual roles,” Roth said. “During my 31 years in the corporate world, I learned one thing really well and that is: no one can serve two masters.”
Roth is one of seven men and one woman running for two seats on the Teton County Commission. On Aug. 19, voters will choose two Republicans and two Democrats to send to the general election in November.
As the campaign heats up, some candidates said they respect Roth’s pledge, but others said it goes too far.
Democrats Claire Fuller and Brian Grubb said the idea is worthy of consideration when it comes to larger real estate transactions, for which developers stand to see huge profits, but not smaller deals such as the purchase of a primary residence.
“I see where he’s coming from with having some commissioners or candidates being involved with commercial development or larger scale residential development,” Fuller said. “Those are sort of the keynote issues in this election. On a personal, residential level, I don’t know if it’s quite as important.”
Yet Fuller said she doesn’t believe Roth’s pledge to abstain from outside organizations has merit. Rather, she said, commissioners can recuse themselves on a case-by-case basis. With that logic, a commissioner could not be involved with the Community Foundation or Jackson Hole Symphony Orchestra, she said.
“At some point, they may have business before the commission,” Fuller said. “We live in such a small community, it would be next to impossible to have no conflict of interest.”
Hank Phibbs, a Democrat on the county commission, often recuses himself from votes. For example, on Tuesday he abstained from voting on supporting a grant application for the Wilson Sewer District because he serves as that group’s attorney.
Grubb said he think there needs to be better guidelines defining what is or is not a conflict of interest. There also should be guidelines that address the appearance of conflicts of interest. Having commissioners serve on outside boards is beneficial for the community, he said.
Grubb also said he believes commissioners should abstain from real estate development while on the board. He also said he believes that three years after leaving office, a commissioner should not be allowed to engage in such transactions. Still, there are limits, he said.
“I don’t think buying or selling a principal residence falls under the category of development,” Grubb said. “Otherwise, we’d all have to sell our houses and rent places while in office.”
Republican Bob Morris said in an e-mail that he agrees with Roth about real estate transactions but sees no conflicts in serving on a board of an organization such as the housing trust.
“For my part, after KMTN pays me for my equipment, I’ll have no investments of any kind in Teton County,” Morris wrote.
Other Republicans fell on the different side of the issues.
Kim Sturlin said he thinks being a commissioner has nothing to do with buying or selling real estate.
“That’s going way too far for crying out loud,” Sturlin said. “I fail to see the connection between a guy selling a lot or home to somebody being a county commissioner.”
Sturlin said if real estate transactions are a conflict of interest, then commissioners should not be allowed to work in any fields, such as engineering, that relate to real estate or development.
Dennis Triano said Roth’s pledge may be going too far.
“That’s like saying [Commissioner] Andy Schwartz has to sell his business downtown because he profits from anything that happens in the county,” Triano said.
While Triano said commissioners should not be involved in legislation that would benefit them, asking them to excuse themselves from real estate transactions is “silly.”
Incumbents Leland Christensen and Andy Schwartz, who was out of town, could not be reached for comment.