The fervent desires of ax-grinders aching to flip the light switch on government officials elbow-deep in the public cookie jar aside, most cases of conflict of interest are about the appearance of conflict, not actual conflict.
That is, the issue is much more often about how close to the cookie jar those officials are allowed to stand and tell passing taxpayers to not be alarmed if they begin rolling up their sleeves.
Only appearance, not actual conflict, is at issue in the case of Lisa Randall, wife of Scottsdale assistant fire Chief Steve Randall.
Even so, it is an important matter to consider.
As the Tribune reported Thursday, Lisa Randall’s local confectionery received a city contract valued at $3,000 to produce 3,100 chocolate bars in the likeness of the Scottsdale city logo, to be distributed during the city’s annual employee awards ceremony that same day.
Let’s set aside some of the more ominous possibilities as just not very likely.
Earning 90 cents per chocolate, Randall wasn’t soaking the city to thereby join her husband in a Tahitian vacation on the proceeds.
And each of the 3,100 pieces of candy, wrapped in cellophane, had a sticker attached bearing Randall’s name and contact information to potentially every one of hundreds of city employees who was to receive one. That certainly rules out some sort of clandestine deal.
A city spokesman explained to the Tribune that in amounts of less than $5,000, Scottsdale’s procurement code allows officials to decide either to put out a contract for bid or to simply purchase any items outright, the latter of which was decided for Randall’s chocolates.
But the city’s ethics policy calls for employees to “avoid even the appearance of misconduct or impropriety,” and presuming that this rule applies to contracts whether they be for $1 or $1 million, that is the area where discussion of the agreement with Randall should focus.
I went to a journalism conference years ago where a presenter told us to write as though our work was being read only by five or six people, so we could ask ourselves whether they would consider it a quality effort.
Perhaps city officials should have asked a question or two like that about how five or six Scottsdale taxpayers might have seen the chocolate contract.
Randall had just fulfilled a similar agreement four months earlier, an $850 order for chocolate bearing the city logo when Scottsdale hosted delegates of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns annual conference.
It might have done everyone some good to think that, though both amounts are miniscule given the size and scope of the city budget, shouldn’t the public’s money be spread around just a little bit more, at least to households where a city paycheck already doesn’t arrive every two weeks as it is?
Because even though Randall obviously didn’t get rich from city money, she did receive quite a promotional benefit: Three thousand people got to see a little commercial for her business on a sticker affixed to each piece of candy Thursday, a privilege that she not only didn’t have to pay for, but for which, it turned out, she actually was paid to be able to provide.
That kind of advertising could be seen by a Scottsdale taxpayer as worth much more than the profit on a $3,000 contract.
Certainly, several Scottsdale businesses would have loved the chance to put an advertisement into the hands of hundreds and hundreds of city employees, all gathered in one spot.
This, plus the fact that it was the second time in four months the city availed itself to the services of the spouse of a prominent, respected city employee, should have been sufficient cause to give the job to someone else.
Lisa Randall did nothing wrong here. But the city could have done more that was right.