Couple should have disclosed conflicts
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 20, 2003
Most people know better than to accept something just because it is free. Those who do learn the hard way that there usually are hidden costs attached to such offers.
Sandra and Nick Nicholson are discovering just how costly.
Times' readers learned this week that Mr. Nicholson, the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission chairman, is the vice president of an engineering company that has provided services to the Hernando County school district. More to the point, the firm, All Coast Engineering, recently did work at two sites the district wants to purchase, one on McKethan Road near Ridge Manor and the other on Deer Street in Spring Hill.
When Mr. Nicholson cast the swing vote as the Planning Commission rejected the controversial Deer Street property, he did not disclose his affiliation with All Coast Engineering.
That was extremely poor judgment. Nicholson should know that even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided. Any speculation about impropriety could have been easily defused if he had been forthcoming about his private-sector business connections.
Mrs. Nicholson, a member of the Hernando County School Board, demonstrated a similar lapse in judgment. She introduced her husband's business associate, Arthur Dillman, to the school district's facilities director, Graydon Howe. She urged Howe to use All Coast Engineering to perform sinkhole studies on the properties. But, like her husband, she failed to mention that a member of her family had a personal interest with the firm.
The Nicholsons have defended their decisions by pointing out that All Coast did the work for free. Mrs. Nicholson says that's the only reason she urged Howe to use the firm, and Mr. Nicholson contends that because neither he nor All Coast profited from the arrangement, there is no irregularity or breach of ethics.
But just because no money was exchanged doesn't absolve the Nicholsons from their responsibilities as public servants to provide the public, and the colleagues on their respective boards, information that might affect their decision-making. The Nicholsons should have been up front about their personal involvement with All Coast and let others decide if a conflict existed or a policy violated.
Mrs. Nicholson also disclosed that her husband has done other work for the school district at no charge. Stung by any suggestion that she or her husband had done something wrong, she told the Times, "We can stop it. We can just not do any free work for the schools if it looks bad."
That's a good idea, Mrs. Nicholson. It does look bad. The financial savings to taxpayers is not worth the potential costs in credibility and public trust.
Her colleagues on the School Board should consider a policy that would ban its members and its members' families from doing work for the school district, paid or free. At the same time, the Planning Commission should consider a similar policy that would require full disclosure when its members' public and private interests overlap.
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