Today’s burning question: I am an elected official and my son is an IAFF firefighter who serves in the community that I represent. Can I get in trouble if I am involved in negotiations, or I vote to approve an agreement with the firefighters? Is it any worse if he is on the union’s negotiation team? And what if both sides agree that they have no problem with it?
Answer: It all depends on the state, but ethics laws in Ohio make it a misdemeanor or even a felony for a public official to use “his or her position to secure any contract-related benefits or other things of value for a family member who is employed by the public agency.” That according to Jennifer Hardin, chief advisory attorney for the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The reality of criminal charges is now confronting Madison Township Trustees’ chairman David Spain, the father of firefighter Kevin Spain. Back in 2011 father and son were involved in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.
According to Trustee Spain, his relationship with his son, seated across the bargaining table, was known to both sides, and no one on either side objected. Unfortunately, that fact alone is not enough to cure the inherent conflict of interest that exists when a relative makes decisions on behalf of the public that directly benefit a family member.
Hardin was quoted in the Mansfield News Journal as saying “The theory is: When a family member is involved and will benefit, there is always the potential for some impropriety. The parties involved can’t just agree to get around criminal law.”
The ethics complaint was filed on behalf of the Madison Township Fire Department. As the investigation proceeds, it will be up to the county prosecutor to seek criminal charges, or allow the matter to be handled by the ethics commission.
Incidentally, the case has a different angle, as Madison Township Deputy Chief Chris Wolfgang is being investigated for a Facebook posting he made relative to Trustee Spain. The posting allegedly said: “BREAKING NEWS!!! Deputy Fire Chief Gives Trustee Chairman His Opinion … Details to follow”, and was accompanied by a picture of one man kneeing another man in the groin. Chief Wolfgang insist he was merely exercising his 1st Amendment rights.