Jeff Pelline: The tangled webs we weave
I clearly recall the last time I wrote about possible conflicts of interest among public officials here, because it was about the same time we got an unlisted telephone number at our home.
I’m glad people are passionate about the issues in our community, and we welcome your e-mails, phone calls, letters or visits – preferably at work.
Conflict of interest is a concern to many people here. The words of a retired attorney who has lived here for years still resonate: “People up here do not seem to appreciate situations that give rise to conflict. It’s a malady that comes up repeatedly with elected officials. They’re either ignorant, don’t care or don’t appreciate the issue.”
Conflicts also can give rise to perceptions of the good old boys (and girls) network, nothing new around here, either, he said.
As for definitions, Wikipedia states: “A conflict of interest is a situation in which someone in a position of trust, such as a lawyer, insurance adjuster, a politician, executive or director of a corporation or a medical research scientist or physician, has competing professional or personal interests.
“Such competing interests can make it difficult to fulfill his or her duties impartially. A conflict of interest exists even if no unethical or improper act results from it.”
In the latest example of a conflict in our neck of the woods, the trial-court judge hearing the nail gun murder case was disqualified after another judge – from the flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley – ruled he may not be impartial because of ties to the victim’s family.
In this instance, Nevada County Superior Court Judge Robert Tamietti’s girlfriend “knew the victim professionally” and his girlfriend’s 20-year-old son has a social relationship with the victim’s daughter, Brianna Williams, whom the defense plans to call to the witness stand, according to court documents.
For his part, Tamietti said in his filing: “I deny any bias toward Mr. Williams or his counsel. I know of no disputed material fact involved in this case about which I have personal knowledge. Further, I do not consent to recusal from these proceedings.” He said he had not met the victim’s daughter, either, and “takes reasonable precautions to preclude my meeting or interacting with (her), such as asking her son not to bring her to my girlfriend’s home when I am there.”
San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Bernard Garber, on assignment by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court to hear the matter, disagreed.
“After a review of all the issues, this court believes that, primarily because Brianna Williams is a material witness in this case, a person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be impartial.” He added, however, “there is no evidence whatsoever of any actual bias,” observing Tamietti sided with the defense on a change of venue motion.
Some other examples of possible conflicts have surfaced in our community, as well:
• Two Nevada City council members, Steve Cottrell and Sheila Stein, have voted on whether to approve the downtown association’s fee plan for businesses. Some residents saw a conflict because Cottrell has worked for a vocal opponent of the plan (Tom Coleman of the National Hotel), and Stein is a downtown businesswoman who pays the group’s fees. Both city council members have denied any conflict, and the city attorney agreed.
• The hiring of Liz McAteer, spouse of the then Nevada County superintendent of schools, as a substitute at Nevada Union High School raised some concerns. McAteer’s defenders said she had the credentials to deserve her new job. Some candidates saw a possible conflict, referring to the many other qualified teaching applicants. (Terry McAteer has since resigned as superintendent and returned to teaching with his spouse).
• The spouse of the district attorney and, later, the daughter of the retired DA was named coordinator of the coalition for a Drug-Free Nevada County. Tasha Senn, and Kelly Newell before her, was the most qualified, CORR said. But others questioned whether the connection to the DA and former DA was a deciding factor. Applicants complained to The Union in both instances.
• The principal of Bear River High School wrote a letter on the school’s letterhead on behalf of Corbin Shakely, who served jail time for holding his ex-girlfriend against her will for several hours in his car. The letter was reviewed at Shakely’s sentencing. But the victim had attended Bear River, too, raising concerns the principal should have remained impartial because he represents both students. The victim’s family was livid.
Each case has different details and nuances, and none of them refer to anything illegal. But you have to ask: Is it ethical, or should the officials have used different judgment?
The Bear River principal conceded he should not have used the school’s official letterhead. McAteer argued his wife had to “jump through more hoops than usual.” Newell and Senn deny any conflict.
So it goes: No consensus.
Interacting in a small community only complicates matters.
Tamietti’s court filing provides an insight: “On August 17, in open court on the record, I disclosed the court’s social interactions with both defense counsel and the deputy district attorney (Kathryn Francis). I disclosed that Mr. Munkelt (the defense attorney) and I work out at the same gym and that we both have aging parents with health problems, so we routinely discuss those challenges.
“I also disclose that Ms. Francis and her husband are social friends, and that my 10-year-old son is friends with her 9-year-old son, and they sometimes play together.”
So it’s a small world.
On the other hand, I think it calls for extra vigilance to diffuse perceptions of a conflict because of “normal” social interactions.
In some instances, I find some of the social interactions in our community are more limiting that you might hope for: The clique of courthouse people, the clique of school people, and so on. (Testimony in one court document, filed by Munkelt, referred to an alleged “‘singles club’ associated with the school district” that defendant Richard Williams believed had encouraged his wife and the victim, “Hetty” Williams, to separate from him. Others testified the charges of a singles’ club were “absurd.”)
In either case, you’d hope for the most widespread interaction possible among the officials in our community – we can learn from each other. When we remain insular, we hear references such as, “Oh, what tangled webs we weave,” a quote from Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott but mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare.
Let’s hope the instances of conflicts that arise in our community generate more awareness about an ongoing problem in our little corner of paradise.
Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235, email@example.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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