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COLUMBIA'S TOP TEN CONFLICTS OF INTEREST: And the crisis of confidence they've inspired

Undisclosed and dangerous, widespread conflicts of interest are harming the town
 
COLUMBIA, 5/16/12 (Essay) -- Chad Herwald, for all intents and purposes, is the Lord of the Trees.
 
His position as the City of Columbia's sole arborist makes him the sole arbiter of a tree's fate anywhere on city property, as he demonstrated recently when he ordered the controversial removal of several 80-year old sweetgum trees on Westwood Avenue.
 
The revelation that Herwald has his own consulting business on the side -- discovered after two third-party arborists declined to render second opinions about the condition of the Westwood trees for fear of "being cut out of city work" -- presented yet another example of a problem that is throttling Columbia by the roots: widespread but undisclosed conflicts of interest.
 
Conflicts of interest in government are dangerous, and make the struggle for honest, fair representation that much more difficult. Public officials need to assure that conflicts are absolutely minimized, and acknowledge that even the perception of a conflict is a problem.
 
After all, the public only has perceptions to go on most of the time. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, most people think it's a duck.
 
Full disclosure is often the best and only way to reduce conflicts, but in Columbia as elsewhere, disclosure is often dismissed as unnecessary and the conflict of interest cast as a figment of someone else's imagination.
 
“Is that a conflict of interest? I do not think so, honestly,” REDI chairman Dave Griggs told the Columbia Daily Tribune when they revealed his firm -- Dave Griggs Flooring America -- had received a $350,000 flooring contract from IBM after REDI -- an official city of Columbia agency -- shepherded Big Blue into town.
 
The attitude seems to be that conflicts of interest are just the way government business gets done.
 
The Lord of the Trees
 
Herwald told the Columbia Daily Tribune his year-old private firm -- Cambium Tree Expert, LLC, which he advertises on the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) website as his only employment -- presents no conflict of interest. ISA certifies Herwald and other arborists.
 
"It's not a secret," Herwald said. "I've been upfront and forthcoming."
 
Not a secret at City Hall, maybe. But certainly a secret among the people for whom such an issue is most important -- the public, Herwald's real employers.
 
"What a huge conflict of interest! How inappropriate," wrote Carin Croll on the Old Southwest listserv. "Who hired this guy? What nonsense."
 
"There certainly is a reek to that type of conflict of interest," added Old Southwest resident Dan Cass.
 
Residents asking for second opinions from one local arborist were advised to call St. Louis. "That's how we found out Chad had his own business," one resident -- who asked to remain anonymous -- told the Columbia Heart Beat. "Columbia's arborists compete with Chad but also rely on him for referrals and fear being cut out of the loop by him."
 
A second local arborist agreed to look at the trees on Westwood, but declined to render a written opinion. "After seeing the trees, he told me in a brief conversation that they were 'healthy' and could last '20 years,' but claimed there was no hope of saving them from the city," another resident explained. "He was eager to get off the phone."
 
As word of Herwald's side business has spread, public perception of his ability to act on behalf of city residents has -- rightly or wrongly -- diminished. Is he doing the public's business -- or drumming up private business? It's a valid question, based on the perception -- rightly or wrongly -- that Herwald's side business may affect his city duties.
 
 
"No wonder the arborist office is not actively pursuing grant money to get our neighborhood and town rehabilitated properly," Croll explained. "He is not interested in preservation or restoration. That's evident in his business plan."
 
 
Crises of Confidence
 
Conflicts of interest are part of the local leadership culture. Leaders often take umbrage at being questioned about them, or poo-poo concerns with witty rejoinders or tired rhetoric. When Columbia Missourian editor George Kennedy confronted Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters about such a conflict in 2009, Waters said he preferred "confluence of interests."

"I just decided some time ago not to worry about this," Waters told Kennedy.

The conflict of interest was important because it involved a potent use of a public power: eminent domain. "He educated me for a few minutes on the virtues of eminent domain and the necessity of its use as the city redevelops downtown," Kennedy wrote about their conversation, ultimately disagreeing with his cross-town rival.
 
"Good journalism requires independence," Kennedy explained. "It also requires full disclosure."

Given that Columbia's leadership culture disregards undisclosed conflicts, what should the public think when a Council person votes to support a powerful business interest over neighbors? What should the public think when public officials shield private interests from responsibilities, like taxes, the rest of us have to bear?
 
"Is someone being paid off?" is the first question most people ask. But that's the obvious question. More to the point, do any of these officials have an undisclosed financial stake in their public decisions? And if they don't while serving, will they acquire a stake when they step down?
 
That guiding suspicion helped create a crisis of confidence in the recent acquisition of plot after plot of residential property by Boone County Family Resources, a public agency, in the wake of a next-door building spree by the Odle family. No connection has ever been made, but the prevalence of these conflicts -- and their cavalier dismissal -- is enough to shake a wary public.
 
 
Top Ten Conflicts
 
In no particular order, these top ten conflicts of interest have stood out remarkably in recent years.
 
 
1) Trib publisher/editor Hank Waters pushing eminent domain use against Bengals Grill in 2009 for a new State Historical Society museum, while serving on the Historical Society board of directors (and failing to disclose it).
 
2) Mr. Waters supporting the EEZ/Blight Decree while failing to disclose that his wife Vicki Russell is co-chair of REDI, the EEZ/Blight Decree's primary sponsor. The Columbia Daily Tribune is also a REDI investor, a position reporters never disclose when reporting on REDI activities.

3) REDI chair Dave Griggs getting flooring contracts with IBM after using his position with REDI to push for IBM's tax breaks. Mr. Griggs getting flooring contracts with Columbia Public Schools and using his position with REDI to publicly endorse the 2012 school bond and tax levy increases.

4) Columbia School Board member Jonathan Sessions sitting on the EEZ/Blight Board with CID director Carrie Gartner while the two were involved in an undisclosed relationship. Mr. Sessions later acknowledged the conflict and stepped down.

5) Appraiser Allan Moore writing a report on the impact of blight on property values for REDI, when Moore is a REDI member and investor, something he failed to disclose. The corollary: REDI actively seeking appraiser-members who supported the Blight Decree/EEZ to write reports about it, and in doing so, violating the most important parts of the Appraisal Institute's Canon of Ethics.
 
6) Boone County Family Resources (BCFR) board member Don Stamper representing BCFR as a real estate agent in recent land sales around Hubbell and St. Joseph streets.
 
7) City arborist Chad Herwald running his own arborist business on the side -- Cambium Tree Expert, LLC -- and working privately with contractors he encounters on his public job.
 
8) Former REDI chair Bob Black writing an incendiary editorial about blight and the EEZ in the Columbia Missourian and Columbia Daily Tribune, while failing to disclose his past and present relationship with REDI.
 
9) The St. Charles Road Development Group (Pugh, Atkins, Wolverton, et. al.) selling land to the Columbia school district for new schools; planning subdivisions next to the schools; and failing to publicly disclose those plans at the time of the land sales, represented to the public as a "great deal" for the schools.
 
10) Columbia Public School superintendent Chris Belcher teaming up with REDI chair Dave Griggs to push tax abatement plans that reduce property taxes and therefore, funding to public schools. The conflict in this case is between Supt. Belcher's public interest in selling tax increases to average folks while reducing taxes on certain private businesses.
 
 
These are only the conflicts we know about; many more surely lurk behind the scenes. When I termed all these conflicts "old news," Columbia resident Dan Stapleton wisely reminded otherwise.
 
"The dual role of Chad Herwald as city arborist and commercial arborist is very enlightening," Stapleton said. "That is important information people should be aware of, especially if we are paying his salary. Conflicts of interest should never be old news."
 
 
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