Most of us think as government as a sort of referee. We live in a free society that has rules, and the government is in charge of enforcing those rules. We live, we work. We start businesses and compete, and the government is a neutral entity in our lives applying the law equally to all.
But that changes when the government starts picking and choosing businesses in the private sector to back. And when the government starts favoring some businesses with special tax breaks or other “economic development” assistance, it becomes hard to avoid the appearance of corruption.
Case in point, Grand Forks City Councilman Doug Christensen who, according to accusations filed an attorney in the city, is guilty of voting to give businesses he represents special favors from the city.
Marshall’s letter focused on six matters involving votes by members of the council or other city committees that created conflicts of interest for Christensen.
According to Marshall:
• In 2002, Christensen took part in discussions of an interest rate buy-down and a property tax exemption for MnDak Concrete, represented by his firm.
• In 2006, Christensen voted in favor of loans, a tax exemption, a property sale and compensation for soil remediation for PS Doors, represented by Christensen’s firm.
• In 2009, Christensen voted to approve tax incentives for AE2S, an engineering firm represented by his firm.
• In 2010, Christensen voted in favor of real estate loans for American Defense Industries, also a client of his firm.
• In 2011, he voted for city Growth Fund loans for AE2S, again represented by his firm.
• In 2013, Christensen recused himself from a vote on a loan for ICS Inc. without giving an explanation. Marshall’s letter cites state law requiring officials to disclose personal interest in matters involving public spending and contracts.
According to the Herald article, Christensen has been punished for conflicts of interest in the past, something voters in Grand Forks apparently don’t care very much about given that Christensen has continued to be elected to the city council. Nor does the city’s leadership seem to care much about the conflicts. The complaint letter was originally sent to Council President Hal Gersham who didn’t respond to it.
That’s a sorry state of affairs, but more troubling is how pervasive these special government deals have become.
It would be very easy to avoid conflicts of interest, it would be very easy to avoid the appearances of graft and corruption, if the government wasn’t involved in handing out loans and special tax exemptions, etc., etc.
Maybe it’s time to get the government back to neutral territory again.