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Going Down the Road to Conflict 

Committee to cut road maintenance costs is a conflict of interest.

conflict of interest - a situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person's self-interest and professional interest or public interest. Source: BusinessDictionary.com

It seems like a pretty simple concept, but we felt obliged to post that definition of "conflict of interest" because the Deschutes County commissioners appear to have a tough time grasping it.

Deschutes County is responsible for maintaining more than 900 miles of roads in unincorporated areas, and it's having an increasingly hard time finding enough money to do it. Tax revenues of all kinds have fallen off since the real estate bubble burst, and the payments the county gets from the federal government in lieu of timber receipts are shrinking and may soon disappear completely. This "perfect financial storm," as the county calls it, has resulted in a shortfall of some $3 million a year in the county road maintenance budget.

Hoping to find shelter from that perfect storm, the county commissioners appointed a special committee to find ways to increase revenue and/or cut road maintenance costs. That was a good idea.

What wasn't such a good idea was who the county decided to put on the committee. The chairman is Todd Taylor, who's president and CEO of Taylor Northwest, one of Central Oregon's biggest construction companies, which routinely does multimillion-dollar projects for the county. Another member is Mike Williams, equipment manager for Hooker Creek, another super-heavyweight in the local road construction game.

To nobody's great surprise, when the committee came out with its recommendations they included more privatization of the county's road maintenance work - a strategy that almost inevitably would mean a lot more juicy contracts for the companies represented by Messrs. Taylor and Williams.

Incredibly, that prospect wasn't the least bit disturbing to the county commissioners. "I don't know if there's really that much conflict," Commissioner Alan Unger told a reporter. "I'm not really that worried" about the problem, said Commissioner Tony DeBone.

How could Unger and DeBone (and their colleague Tammy Baney) fail to see that Taylor and Williams are in a textbook conflict-of-interest position - a position where there's "the possibility of a clash between [their] self-interest and ... [the] public interest"? We can only guess it's because they've been living too long in Central Oregon, where "conflict of interest" typically is defined as something other people - not you and your good-old-boy friends - are guilty of.

It could well be that more privatization is a great way to cut the county's road maintenance bill. The advisory committee didn't come up with a dollar estimate of how much could be saved. The county should move ahead and have such an estimate prepared - but by independent experts, not by anybody with a direct or indirect financial stake in how the numbers come out.

Meanwhile, we're administering THE BOOT to the county commissioners for not seeing a conflict of interest when it was staring them in the face - and hoping it will jolt their eyes open so they don't miss the next one.

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