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City Lowers Ethical Standard
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Dear Editor: Since 1962 the Covington City Charter has forbidden the mayor, members of the City Council and city employees from doing business with the city during their term of office or term of employment. This is a conflict-of-interest standard that protects the public from insider abuse of power and position and protects office-holders from the public perception of self-dealing. This week the City Council decided the standard was too high.

State law provides a lower legal threshold than does the city charter. It permits the sale of merchandise or property in amounts up to $200 per calendar quarter and permits participation in sealed-bid contracts. Two hundred dollars per quarter is a token amount that is unlikely to lead to wholesale corruption. Sealed-bid contracts, however, can be for hundreds of thousands or many millions of dollars.

The sealed-bid procedure is designed to be transparent and fair to all parties, but is not perfect. Losing bidders can and sometimes do legally challenge the impartiality or terms of RFPs soliciting bids. Insiders can and sometimes do improperly influence or outright rig the process. This is what happened with Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport indoor advertising contract fiasco, in which the city lost revenue by directing the business to political and personal insiders, then spent millions in public funds defending against the legal challenge, then spent millions more on awards and penalties when they lost the case.

This is not to say that current Covington council members or city employees are dishonest or don’t have good intentions. They have a tough job to do in difficult circumstances. As in this case, they typically receive more criticism than praise. Yet in lowering the charter’s standard to match the state’s minimum requirements, the city still meets the criteria for being a Certified City of Ethics, a designation it received from the Georgia Municipal Association in 2006.

Lowering the ethical standard was nevertheless a mistake that should be reversed, for even if a council member or employee were to honestly and fairly win a sealed-bid contract, it would raise the specter of being self-serving. You can serve the public or serve yourself, but trying to do both at the same time is, by definition, a conflict of interest.