Oklahoma City's potential-conflicts-of-interest purging process causes scramble 

Oklahoma City officials recently addressed would-be conflicts of interest of 16 city boards, commissions and committees with uneven results.


The weeding-out process announced by City Manager Jim Couch last summer spawned questions in its wake, according to some city officials. Several members of city boards and commissions resigned due to the effort.

"Should we have known this when these committees were set up?" Couch said at the onset of the city's investigation.

"We probably should have known that when we were making the appointments. So, I'm not saying we didn't screw up. Not saying that at all. But we've recognized the issue and we are trying to correct it."

When city officials began sending out their conflict memo Aug. 27 " and in select cases, contacted board, commission or committee members to inform them there might be a conflict of interest on their part " the move caused confusion. The city adopted a new form for committee candidates to fill out when applying that requires disclosure of potential conflicts.

While an overwhelming majority of remaining board and commission members currently don't appear to have a conflicts of interests, records show that at least one board member works with a firm under contract with the city. Yet, in the tangle of city and state rules, do these instances constitute conflict?

Records show Roland Tague, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, is an attorney with the Andrews Davis law firm in downtown Oklahoma City. The city has two contracts with the firm totaling $50,000 for legal services in an agreement dated from February of this year. The contract runs through June 2009.

According to the city charter in place at the time the contract between the city and the firm was signed, no officer of the city shall have a direct or indirect interest in any contract between the city and the company the officer works for. Board and commissions members, whether elected or appointed, are considered officers.

Tague has been with Andrews Davis since 2006 and a member of the Historic Preservation Commission for more than four years. He currently serves as the commission's chairman, according to a recent commission agenda.

The conflict-of-interest charter has been in place for decades.

Tague said his firm mainly provides expertise in the area of Indian law and said the city wants to continue that service. Tague said he didn't consider a potential violation when the city first sent out the conflict memo because he didn't work on the legal services the firm provides the city. Later, he had questions.

"I contacted the city and they issued an opinion saying it was not a conflict," he said. "They based that on me having less than 25 percent ownership of the firm. They said even under the old interpretation, I didn't have a conflict."

In another case, two members serving on different committees " but with similar conditions of would-be "conflict" " had different outcomes.

When C. H. Guernsey & Company project manager Kelly Coffman received the memo, she said she felt that it meant she needed to resign from the Riverfront Design Committee, although she is an employee of her company, not an owner.

"I really just did what I was comfortable with," Coffman said. "My resigning was completely of my own accord and what I felt comfortable with. When I read and interpreted the material, I did what I thought I should do. I wasn't pushed to do it by anyone. It was just my own individual decision."

In her letter resigning from the committee, Coffman cites the memo, specifically the position in which it put her employer.

"The letter provides clarification on an issue of immediate concern to me and my employer "¦ namely that service on the Riverfront Design Committee causes me to be termed an 'officer' of the city and that subsequently my company is legally prohibited into entering into contracts with the city," Coffman stated. "As you know, Guernsey inquired about this issue prior to the submittal of my application. The opinion we received was that service on the committee would not be a conflict of interest with city projects."

Coffman's situation contrasts sharply with that of Architectural Design Group (ADG) planner Betsy Brunsteter. Brunsteter is the chair of the Downtown Design Review Committee, a city body hit hard by the conflicts issue. In that case, the design committee lost two members to such resignations, and nearly a third " Brunsteter. She, too, is an employee of a firm that had a shadow of conflict with the city.

ADG had two contracts with a trust and an authority within the city, although not a contract with the city government. Initially, Brunsteter suspended her activity on the design committee, describing a possible resignation by saying "there's an opportunity for that." Nevertheless, she did not resign and returned to her position on the committee.

The issue wrought havoc on the committee, Brunsteter said. In one case, the board voted approval of a multi-million dollar project with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce with only three of its original seven members voting. Because her company did have a contract with the chamber, Brunsteter recused herself from voting, but remained in the room for the group to reach quorum.

"There are some significant things going on, and we've barely had a quorum," she said at the time. "It's really unfortunate that we still don't have a full committee. We desperately need another architect downtown "¦ We are in desperate need of design professionals on the downtown design committee."

However, like Coffman, Brunsteter is an employee, not an owner, of ADG.

After Brunsteter and her company arrived at that conclusion, she determined that she was able to remain active on the body. Three members, including Brunsteter, TAP Architecture principal Anthony McDermid, and civil engineer David Todd, were confronted with the possibility of conflict. McDermid and Todd resigned.

"It's "¦ interesting that this just came up, and the city's been operating this way for 80 years," McDermid said at the time.

Todd said city officials told him he was violating the law.

"The municipal counselor said it was a misdemeanor to be doing what we were doing," Todd said at the time.

Couch has denied the chamber building approval had anything to do with the issue over conflicts of interest. He noted the city was "in the process" of "identifying" potential conflicts.

"Now, I know there are some conspiracy theorists out there. Oliver Stone has been in and decided that we are kicking these people off because they are opposed against the chamber building. That's absurd. I can tell you that it's absolutely absurd," Couch said at the time.

In a recent interview, former Mayor Kirk Humphreys said he agreed with Couch.

"It makes total sense to me, 'cause I know how city hall works and how our legal department works and it makes sense," Humphreys said.

Humphreys said the recent resignation of Ward 6 council member Ann Simank raised the issue of conflict of interest at city hall. Simank resigned recently when her son was accepted to the fire department's training academy.

"There was a lady in our neighborhood who was considering running, and I cannot remember her name. "¦ Ann Simank told me she would have been good, but her husband works for the Bank of Oklahoma (and) the Bank of Oklahoma does business with the city on bond work."

Humphreys said the bank feared a conflict would arise.

"So, what I was told, is that Bank of Oklahoma said, 'No, she can't run for council because it would create a conflict for us, for our business,'" Humphreys said. "Now, that's all second- or third-hand, but that's what I was told. "¦And that raised the whole issue of what is the state law and is there anyone else that might fall under that potential conflict."

Significantly, one of the principal owners of ADG, Thomas Wilson, did resign from the Bricktown Urban Design Committee. In a letter to Mayor Mick Cornett, he explained that his reading of the memo predicated his resignation. Although the company did not have a direct contractual obligation to the city, Wilson said that his company might need to in the future.

"As a prime client of ADG, I consider our relationship with the city as a critical factor in the success of our firm. To terminate such a relationship would not be in the best interests of the firm or its 60 employees," Wilson wrote.

Wilson lamented the possibility that anyone with talent enough to garner a city contract would be precluded from civic service.

"It is a travesty that this talented group of people might choose to do as I have and remove themselves from public service because of a law that prohibits them from such activity," the letter states.

Jackie Jones, a member of the Oklahoma City Arts Commission, is also executive director of Central Oklahoma Turning Point. Records show Jones is also the former executive director of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City and is currently on the board of directors. The arts council, according to records, has a contract with the city for $20,000 to provide art classes and performances at various parks. The agreement was approved in July and runs through June of 2009.

Jones, who was never contacted by the city over this matter, said Central Oklahoma Turning Point does not have any contracts with the city.

There are also members of city trusts, like MAPS for Kids and the Economic Development Trust, who work for companies that have city contracts.

However, under state statute, trusts are considered separate entities and do not fall under the same conflict-of-interest rules.

In November, Oklahoma City voters approved a new charter amendment, which replaces the current conflict-of-interest language. The new rule states that a conflict arises when a sitting board member has at least a 25 percent ownership of a company that contracts with the city. This rule conforms to the state statute.

Could this change the outcome of certain resignations that resulted from the enforcement of the conflict-of-interest rules?

Brunsteter said she did not know Coffman or have direct information on her company, but said Coffman's situation sounds all too similar to her own near-resignation.

"If she owned less than 25 percent of the company, she would be able to participate on that committee," Brunsteter said. "This is just the sort of thing we are talking about."

"Ben Fenwick and Scott Cooper

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