Minden attorney offers thoughts on Nevada's ethics law

At a time when quid pro quo political corruption is taking the national spotlight, legal counsel for the Town of Gardnerville Mike Rowe spent 20 minutes Tuesday night educating Gardnerville Town Board members about governmental ethics, specifically conflicts of interest.

The discussion was educational only, part of an annual training, and for the benefit of new board member Robin Bernhard.

The Minden attorney said the town itself does not have its own policy regarding conflicts of interest, but follows state ethics laws.

"Nobody expects public officials not to have conflicts of interest come up," Rowe said. "It happens, especially in small towns."

Rowe said conflicts of interest can arise from several situations, including having a pecuniary, or financial, interest in the outcome of a vote. He said there is a possibility of a conflict of interest any time a public officer is rendered "less impartial."

"If there is an appearance of a conflict of interest, there probably is one, and you should avoid it," Rowe said.

He urged board members to consult district counsel any time they have even minimal concerns about the issue. He said counsel will make a recommendation one way or the other, but said board members can always appeal to the Nevada Commission on Ethics, which issues a separate opinion.

"In most cases their opinion is consistent with the original opinion," Rowe said. "My recommendation is that you abide by town counsel until the (higher) opinion is issued."

Rowe said the ethics commission can impose penalties for violations, including fines and removal from office.

"It's very embarrassing and very expensive, and it can be avoided," Rowe said. "The answer is simple. Disclose the conflict and don't participate in the decision. It's easier to avoid it then move forward trying to prove a point."

Rowe also discussed state open meeting laws.

"Meetings of a quorum need to be properly noticed with clear and complete statements of each item on the agenda and statements whether action should or should not be taken," he said.

He said new board members need to remember that board discussions can not stray from what's been agendized.

"Listen and make sure you stay within what's been noticed," he said.

Rowe said there are exceptions, including emergency situations, when board members can meet and take action without agendas.

"But it's important to bring it back to a public meeting (after the fact)," he said.


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