Wilshire can’t have it both ways

Here’s a good rule of thumb for public officials trying to avoid the mere appearance of a conflict of interest: If you know you can’t vote, then you shouldn’t be a key player in the talks leading up to that vote, either.

That basic principle came to mind after watching Alderman-at-Large Lori Wilshire contort herself like a pretzel these past few weeks while trying to strike a delicate balance between advocacy for the city’s nonprofit agencies and her full-time job at one.

Specifically, her active participation in the distribution of nearly $520,000 in public funds among 30 local agencies during the budget review process has raised some legitimate questions over whether it was proper for her to do so.

Wilshire, who has served as an alderman for 12 years, is employed as the budget manager at the Nashua Children’s Home, one of the agencies competing for this money during the city’s recently completed budget process.

As reported in a front-page story in The Sunday Telegraph (“Drawing line over budget conflicts / Some question, others defend Wilshire”), she acknowledged she may have come “close to the line,” but she didn’t believe she crossed it. She abstained from all votes pertaining directly to her employer.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for Kevin Moriarty, a member of the commission that reviews and makes recommendations for the distribution of the money to the Board of Aldermen.

Moriarty said Wilshire should have recused herself from all discussions related to how the city intended to split up the money among dozens of nonprofit agencies.

Even though she never voted on a motion directing money to her employer, he said, her votes to fund other agencies created what he called a “chain reaction,” since they were all competing for the same bucket of money.

Under Chapter 5 (Administration of Government) of the city’s revised ordinances, no member of a board or commission “may vote or participate in discussion on a question in which the member has a direct personal and pecuniary interest” (Section 98-C).

So, did Wilshire violate the city ordinance?

We’ll leave the definitive answer to that question in the hands of the city’s attorneys – Deputy Corporation Counsel Stephen Bennett declined when asked to comment for Sunday’s article – but a layman certainly could make a case that Wilshire participated in a discussion on which she had a “direct personal and pecuniary interest.”

After all, things don’t get much more “personal and pecuniary” than your job.

For her part, Wilshire maintains she consistently has advocated for the less fortunate during her dozen years on the board – “If I stopped doing that, I shouldn’t be on the board,” she said – and for that she should be commended.

But there are ways to do that without placing herself in the middle of an ethical quandary, i.e., advocating for money for specific agencies when each decision could have a direct impact on her employer.

Nor was she the right vehicle to heap repeated criticism on Alderman-at-Large Mark Cookson, the board’s liaison to the Review and Comment Commission, and the way the commission went about its task of recommending funding levels for each agency this year.

Which brings us right back to our rule of thumb: If you know you can’t vote, maybe you shouldn’t be doing so much talking.