This past fall I saw a photo in The Record-Courier of Commissioner Lee Bonner with his golf partner Chip Hanley, president of troubled developer Syncon Homes. I emailed Mr. Bonner with a somewhat joking comment asking why did it seem that whenever there was something in the newspaper about a commissioner playing golf that it always seemed to involve developers? He responded that he knew Chip Hanley mainly through cutting horses.
Last month Clear Creek LLC came before the Board of Commissioners asking the county to loan them $1 million to help pay for the water system that the developers were required to put in according to the 2003 Conditions of Approval. I looked up Clear Creek LLC on the Secretary of State’s website to see who the officers were. Lo and behold, there was Chip Hanley, right at the top of the list. So obviously Commissioner Bonner is going to disclose his relationship with Mr. Hanley, right?
The mission statement of the Nevada Commission on Ethics is to “strive to enhance the public’s faith and confidence in government by ensuring that public officers … uphold the public trust by committing themselves to avoid conflicts between their private interests and their public duties.” Not only is this in the public interest, but it is also a legal requirement, found in NRS 281.
It seems to me that commissioners should always err on the side of caution when considering whether they need to disclose any potential conflict of interest, explain their relationship with any person or company who has a matter before the board, and explain why they can or cannot be impartial in fulfilling their public duty on that matter.
Knowing someone through horses, or playing a four-hour round of golf with them, doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be impartial or that you should recuse yourself from voting on something. But it seems, just to avoid even the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, that you should disclose that relationship. If not, it’s easy to see how people might think that there was something to hide.
Commissioner Bonner, however, made no disclosure of his relationship with Chip Hanley. Oddly enough, when it came to the board’s discussion on whether to loan Clear Creek Partners a million dollars, it was Commissioner Bonner who was one of the main cheerleaders.
When I spoke with Commissioner Bonner during a subsequent break in the meeting, he tried to assure me that his relationship with Chip Hanley would not have affected his vote. I replied that my concern was disclosure. Mr. Bonner said that he played golf with people out of friendship, and that he’d even be willing to play golf with me. Well, first of all, I don’t play golf, but secondly, and more importantly, I’m not asking the county to loan me a million dollars. That’s a pretty important difference.
My recommendation going forward to all commissioners is this: when in doubt, disclose. You should never give the public even the appearance of impropriety. After all, a public office is a public trust held for the sole benefit of the people.