The last post had to do with conflicts of interest. This is a follow-up to that but a little but more subtle. There are really three different types of conflicts of interest. Legal conflicts that are clearly defined by ordinance, policy, rule, statute or otherwise. Ethical conflicts, for which there may be no law against, but ethics dictates against. And political conflicts, which are governed by political will and politics. Within each of these categories there are actual conflicts and also circumstances that give rise to the appearance of a conflict. Best practice would of course dictate that all conflicts be avoided, unless circumstances necessitate otherwise (this is called the doctrine of necessity and is explored a bit in the Markowitz article cited in my last post).

Again we go to a piece by VT Digger, this time a commentary by Mike Smith, a former cabinet level official in the Douglas Administration. Mr. Smith wrote in what appears to be a commentary piece (although it is listed under “Politics” and not “Commentary”) as follows: “Advocates can point to the fact that Doug Hoffer, the state auditor, has come out in support of Keep BT Local in a letter someone posted on Facebook. But it would be highly unlikely for the state auditor to intervene before the Public Utility Commission in this case. In fact, many were surprised by Hoffer’s endorsement. Normally an auditor would be quick to scold a state agency proposing a project under similar terms. Some Vermonters wonder how you can advocate one opinion, even as a private citizen, yet assert a higher standard as state auditor.” (Emphasis mine).

In the comments section to Smith’s piece, Auditor Hoffer responded as follows:

The position of State Auditor is one created pursuant to Chapter II, Section 43 of the Vermont Constitution. The powers of the Auditor are defined in part in 32 V.S.A. §163 and include the following provisions:

“In his or her discretion, conduct a continuing post audit of all disbursements made through the Office of the Commissioner of Finance and Management or the Office of the State Treasurer, including disbursements to a municipality, school supervisory union, school district, or county.” (Emphasis mine).

“Make available to all counties, municipalities, and supervisory unions as defined in 16 V.S.A. § 11(23) and supervisory districts as defined in 16 V.S.A. § 11(24) a document designed to determine the internal financial controls in place to assure proper use of all public funds.”

“Make available to all county, municipality, and school district officials with fiduciary responsibilities an education program.”

An Auditor therefore: 1) audits municipalities; 2) provides guidance on financial controls for municipalities; and 3) provides educational programming for municipalities.

Auditor Hoffer indicates in his comment that the position he is taking on the sale of Burlington Telecom was not as Auditor, but rather as “a 29-year resident of Burlington and a former member and chair of the Burlington Electric Commission.”  That may well be the case, but Mr. Hoffer is still the Auditor. He is the Auditor 24/7/365. He can never stop being Auditor until he is out of office.

If Auditor Hoffer wanted to publicly comment on his preference of the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, he would still be doing so as the State Auditor. However, his opinion AS Auditor would certainly hold no authority or even a remote appearance of authority. While one could potentially doubt the political wisdom of choosing sides in a sporting event, it is hardly likely to create much backlash and certainly not related to any political duties.

The Auditor’s Office in this instance may very well have occasion in the future to officially weigh-in on the sale of Burlington Telecom. And even if it does not have official duties, there have been many Auditors who have used the Office as a bully pulpit to weigh in on important issues of public policy and importance.

All elected officials, when publicly commenting on something even potentially within their bailiwick are doing so in their official capacity. Otherwise it would be impossible to hold them accountable.

On a final and personal note, Auditor Hoffer started off by stating the following: “I’m a little disappointed that you thought it was OK to comment on my support for the KBTL proposal without contacting me first. Isn’t that journalism 101?” The VT Digger piece appears to be commentary. I’ve never heard that commentators need to contact the subjects of their commentary. I engage in a regular commentary on Vermont Public Radio and if that’s the standard, neither my producer, nor anyone else has ever brought it to my attention. For that matter, the editorials appearing in the New York Times, never appear to contact the subjects of the opinion pieces either.