Douglas County Commission Chairman Lee Bonner has accepted a temporary job with the Northern Nevada Development Authority, the region's publicly funded economic development agency, and he does not believe it poses a conflict of interest.
Bonner, who worked as GE Energy's communications specialist before being elected to the board in 2010, recently announced his new position as NNDA director of communications on LinkedIn, a social networking site for professionals.
When asked earlier this week about the new position, Bonner said he'd checked with both the county manager and district attorney's office before taking the job.
"One thing's clear - I'm not involved with economic development with them," he said. "I'm writing communication pieces. I'm putting a strategy together that communicates with investors and stakeholders."
NNDA Executive Director Rob Hooper said Tuesday that Bonner was hired about two weeks ago under a three-month contract, with compensation of approximately $1,000 a month, to help the agency with articles, its website, and other communications.
"He has a background in the area," he said. "For that price, it's fantastic. He's already doing tremendous work for us."
Hooper said the relationship poses no conflict of interest because Bonner can recuse himself were the agency to appear before the county commission.
"It's almost a negative for us because we'd much rather have his vote," he said. "It's important for us to give him the opportunity. He's the right guy for it. We need everyone at the table."
According to its website, the NNDA is "the recognized economic development authority for the Sierra region of Nevada which is comprised of Carson City, Churchill County, Douglas County and Lyon County, and the southern half of Storey County. The agency is a nonprofit organization funded by the state, the counties and cities within the region and through donations from 'investor partners' which is the business community of the region."
NNDA's stated mission is "to facilitate the recruitment of new business and industry and the retention and expansion of existing businesses."
Douglas County Manager Steve Mokrohisky said Tuesday that the county allocates $25,000 from the general fund to the NNDA each year. Additionally, he said the board approved a $91,000 contract with the NNDA in June 2011 to help develop an energy science cluster in Douglas County, as identified in the county's Economic Vitality Plan.
The contract expires in June 2013.
Mokrohisky said Bonner had informed him about the part-time position in advance. He said he suggested Bonner consult the district attorney's office.
On Tuesday, Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson said any conversation with Bonner regarding the matter is protected by attorney-client privilege. He said he believed the issue was referred to the office of the Nevada Commission on Ethics and found not to violate state ethics laws.
On Wednesday, the executive director of that commission, Caren Cafferata-Jenkins, said she has no statutory authority to render decisions on an individual basis. She said only the commission as a deliberative body can render decisions on ethical matters.
When governmental officials call her seeking advice, Cafferata-Jenkins said she refers them to relevant Nevada Revised Statutes with the disclaimer that she's not legal counsel.
Cafferata-Jenkins could neither confirm nor deny she had a conversation with Bonner.
"Even if he had called me, I wouldn't be in a position to clear him," she said. "I'm an educator. I know what the statutes are, where the absolute lines are. But very few things in the statutes are black and white. If it's not clear on its face, its interpretation is up to the commission. I'm not in a position to give anyone advice over the phone. That would be practicing law, and I don't do that for the commission."
In a hypothetical situation, if a sitting county commissioner were to find employment with an economic development agency, Cafferata-Jenkins said she would direct that person to two subsections under NRS 281A.400.
Subsection 5 states, "If a public officer or employee acquires, through the public officer's or employee's public duties or relationships, any information which by law or practice is not at the time available to people generally, the public officer or employee shall not use the information to further the pecuniary interests of the public officer or employee or any other person or business entity."
Subsection 10 states, "A public officer or employee shall not seek other employment or contracts through the use of the public officer's or employee's official position."
Using the aforementioned hypothetical situation, Cafferata-Jenkins said a sitting commissioner with a specific skill set and resume may look for work in many places unrelated to their governing position.
"Subsection 5 says you shouldn't take some secret position that was created for you and that no one knows about," she said. "If the information is not available generally, then there might be an issue with that statute."
Bonner said an NNDA employee had been planning to retire at the time of his employment, and that he was contracted to handle communication responsibilities in the interim.
"It's really temporary," he said. "Rob (Hooper) approached me about it, and asked me about helping - strategically how NNDA can communicate better to help all five counties."
Bonner said that while his heart's in economic development, he plans to recuse himself if a conflict of interest arises at future board meetings.
He said he was not employed by the agency on or before Aug. 16, when NNDA officials presented two items on the board's agenda. The first was a presentation on the agency's regional plan. The second was an action item on the state's $10 million Catalyst Fund for economic development.
According to the minutes of the Aug. 16 meeting, the board unanimously approved the latter item, which authorized the county manager to review and approve Catalyst Fund applications of up to $1 million in the future.
"Maurice Washington, NNDA, pointed out this is a state constitutional issue; the state cannot give state money to a nonprofit or any other organization. The GOED (Governor's Office on Economic Development) board makes the final approval and then the money would be passed through the county and back to NNDA to distribute," the minutes read. "Chairman Bonner referred to public comments made about transparency and large dollar amounts on the consent calendar and wants to recognize this is a different process."
Bonner said this week that his roles as commission chairman and NNDA employee are and will remain separate.
"When I have my county commissioner hat on, I'm looking through that perspective," he said. "With the NNDA, it's a regional perspective."