Tracy City Council to discuss conflict of interest issue

TRACY — The subject of conflict of interest involving elected officials will be discussed once again during tonight’s Tracy City Council meeting.

A heated debate erupted during the July 8 meeting after Mayor Anthony Dimmers requested that council member Tony Peterson abstain from voting on an agenda item involving his employer. The item called for decision on whether or not to hold a hearing concerning Economic Development Agency board member Jeff Salmon, owner of Salmon Motors in Tracy. The agenda item called for a hearing to address allegations of misconduct by Salmon. According to a memorandum prepared by City Attorney Matthew Gross, City Administrator Kris Ambuehl received a written complaint from James Mattson that alleged Salmon made personal attacks against Mattson’s character and “sabotaged Mr Mattson’s business and character.”

Peterson argued that shouldn’t have to abstain and alleged the whole investigation of Salmon by Gross and Ambuehl as a “witch hunt.”

The council eventually voted 4-0 to schedule the Salmon hearing at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall. Peterson did abstain from voting.

But the council is seeking clarification on conflict of interest during tonight’s meeting. Ambuehl sent emails to the League of Minnesota Cities and Gross with questions the council had on conflict of interest. Those questions are:

• Should a council member abstain from discussion and/or voting when the agenda item includes their employer?

• The Tracy City Council would like clarification on friends and conflict of interests — one concern is that in a small town the likelihood of council members knowing someone involved in an agenda item is highly likely?

• If a council member refuses to abstain from the discussion, how could the council move forward?

Pamela Whitmore, collaboration and mediation program manager with the League of Minnesota Cities, said she could not offer legal opinions or advice. She did offer that the law regarding conflict of interest is very much a gray area when dealing with matters of determining whether a council member has a “personal financial interest.” In his answers to the council, Gross agreed.

“The definition of “personal financial interest” is not black and white,” he said.

Whitmore offered the public officers, interest in contract; penalty law: “A public officer is authorized to take part in any manner in making and sale, lease, or contract in official capacity shall not voluntarily have a personal interest in that sale, lease or contract or personally benefit financially therefrom. Every public officer who violates this provision is guilty of gross misdemeanor.”

Whitmore also cited a provision in the city of Tracy’s charter: “No officer of the city who is authorized to take part in any manner in any contract with the city shall voluntarily have a personal interest in such contract or personally benefit financially therefrom.”

Whitmore said the council should refer to the city attorney in making conflict of interest determinations. But on the question about friends, she said “both the law and city’s charter prohibit personal financial interest or personal financial benefit by the elected official and not just a friend.”

In his memo, Gross said employment alone by the council member by the contracting party is not a conflict of interest in contractual situations. But urged the council to “err on the side of caution.”

“The appearance of any conflict of interest, even if it is not present, creates more problems with the perception of the council and its decisions,” he said. “Erring on the side of caution with these matters strengthens the public’s trust in the the council and helps avoid liability and legal challenges with the council’s decision.”

Both Whitmore and Gross said censure is an option to address a council member’s failure to abstain when a conflict of interest is present.

“A censure is a public reprimand or disapproval of a council member’s behavior,” Gross wrote. “Also, the public may choose to recall the council member in a special election.”