Conflict of Interest, Even in Ashland: Let’s clean up our own house!

Conflict of Interest, Even in Ashland

While Trump and his family remain under scrutiny by the press and public over a range of issues relating to conflict of interest, right here at home, Ashland’s City Council faces troubles of its own relating to similar conflicts.

Oregon government ethics law recognizes two types of conflicts of interest:  an “actual conflict of interest” as defined under Oregon statute ORS 244.020(1), and a “potential conflict of interest” as defined in ORS 244.020(12).  These statutes state that a public official faces a conflict of interest when participating in any official act which may or does in fact result in a financial benefit (or detriment) to that public official, or to a relative of that public official, or to a business with which either the official or his/her relative is associated.

At the April 18th City Council meeting, Councilor Greg Lemhouse leveled a charge of ethics violations against Sharon Harris. Ms. Harris happens to serve as president of the Ashland nonprofit OHRA (Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland) while concurrently serving by appointment of the Mayor on Ashland’s Housing and Human Services Commission. OHRA is the only Ashland-based nonprofit agency currently serving the needs of our city’s poverty-stricken and homeless populations, and the agency had, along with several other local agencies, submitted a social services grant request to Ashland’s Housing and Human Services Commission.

At the April 18th meeting, councilors were presented with the commission’s recommendations on these grant requests, and Councilor Lemhouse took this opportunity to specifically charge Ms. Harris with failing to recuse herself from the commission’s vote on grant funding.  He offered no evidence for his charge; he simply took upon himself the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury. The result was that OHRA’s grant request was slashed by 78%, so that they now face inadequate funding to serve the critical needs of our poor and homeless.

In her April 26th letter to the editor of the Tidings, Ms. Harris spelled out the details of what actually occurred. There were no ethics violations, no conflicts of interest. She had scrupulously explained her dual roles to the commission, and the commission consulted with the city attorney and proceeded under his guidance and recommendations in acting on OHRA’s grant request. Had Councilor Lemhouse taken the opportunity to inquire about these facts before leveling his charges in the public meeting, Ms. Harris would have been spared unfounded public criticism and possibly slanderous charges.

In 2015, OHRA received $34,000 from this same social services grant funding, most of which was earmarked for the services of the Ashland Community Resource Center (ACRC), which exists under OHRA’s organizational umbrella. Among its other services, ACRC offers the poor and homeless job search and placement assistance, resume preparation help, job interview skills coaching, clothing, and housing assistance. Since last May, ACRC Received $9,000 from the city to focus on employment for their clients.  ACRC found full-time employment for 50 individuals, 33 additional part-time jobs, and 109 homes for job-seekers and others in need of housing. In 2017, OHRA was requesting $41,000 in funding. However, after Councilor Lemhouse leveled his unfounded accusations, the commission’s recommendation to the Council for $40,000 was denied; OHRA was instead granted just $4,000.

The real conflict of interest here lies not with Sharron Harris and OHRA but rather with Councilor Lemhouse himself, who is employed by Southern Oregon Goodwill Industries as Vice President of Workforce Development. In this role, Mr. Lemhouse oversees Goodwill Industries’ Jobs Connection program including their Ashland-based program which offers services similar to ACRC’s. In the past year, Ashland’s Jobs Connection has found employment for fewer than 50 individuals with no follow-up to evaluate job permanence. In spearheading the effort to deny funding to the only agency in Ashland in direct competition with his own Jobs Connection program, Lemhouse clearly faced his own conflict of interest.

A second potential conflict of interest situation has arisen regarding the council, this one related to the spending allocation of Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) dollars. Councilor Dennis Slattery’s spouse happens to be the director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which is earmarked to receive $425,000 in TOT dollars. Although Councilor Slattery did recuse himself, during the March 7 meeting on this issue, the Chamber will nevertheless receive this large sum, once the budget is given Council’s final approval. Mr. Slattery should recuse himself from voting on this specific section of the budget. His wife, and he, by extension will definitely benefit financially from this vote.  In fact, any City Council vote related to the downtown business community might pose a potential conflict of interest for Mr. Slattery when his spouse receives salary, benefits, and bonuses directly tied to City Council action.

The appearance of a conflict of interest is as critical as an actual conflict of interest.  Councilors Lemhouse and Slattery must refrain from commentary on issues such as these and must recuse themselves from voting on any issues relating to these matters. Citizens must watch carefully as these councilors opine and cast votes on issues that may potentially or actually do benefit them financially.

Let’s clean up our own house, even as we insist that Washington, D.C. get its house in order.

Carol Voisin