Roop must choose


Before I say anything else: Tulsa City Councilor Sam Roop is an honorable man. I have no reason to believe he has done anything deliberately to take advantage of his position as a Tulsa City Councilor, beyond using his knowledge as a long-time Councilor of who's who in City Hall, in order to steer city business to his new business venture. He has disclosed his involvement in a new business called American Technical Partners, which is seeking to provide computer networking services to the City of Tulsa. (See Tuesday's Whirled storyhere, jump page here.)

City Councilor Sam Roop said he had no problem asking the city to hire his startup company, American Technical Partners, to provide the city with the next generation of telecommunications technology.

"I realize there may be a conflict of interest because I'm a city councilor, but I have disclosed my interest in this group right up front," said Roop, who has raised potential conflict of interest issues with recent city board appointments....

After Roop had several meetings with employees of the city's Telecommunications Department, American Technical Partners submitted a proposal last month to study the city's options for setting up a wireless broadband communications network using WiMAX technologies.

The company asked for a fee of $25,000 to do the study. ...

"I'm in an unique position where I understand the technology world and the municipal world because I've been in both of them. I know what technology can do to save municipalities money," he said.

American Technical Partners is approaching not only Tulsa but many other cities in the state and in the country, he said.

(Emphasis added.)

It's the sort of thing former elected officials do all the time -- they use their knowledge of government to identify and develop goods or services that would be useful to the government they used to serve, and then they use their contacts and goodwill inside the government to help make the sale.

But Sam Roop is not yet a former elected official. And that is a distinction that makes all the difference.

To say that a public official has a "conflict of interest" doesn't mean that the person is evil or corrupt. It simply means that he is in a situation where what is in the public interest, which he has sworn to uphold, doesn't necessarily coincide with his private interests. It may be that the smartest, wisest, best money the City could spend would be to hire Sam Roop's company to setup broadband wireless networking, or it may be the stupidest idea ever. But either outcome would be fine for Sam Roop's company, once the city's check clears.

I'm sure Sam Roop would be scrupulous enough to avoid voting on awarding a contract with his own company. But the public interest demands more than avoiding such a direct conflict of interest.

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" wrote Jeremiah. A conflict of interest creates ethical blindspots. When considering a course of action for the City in his role as a Councilor, there will always be, simmering below the conscious level of Sam Roop's mind, some calculation as to the impact of his policy decision on his company's dealings with the City. At a conscious level this will cause him to discount information that would lead him to a conclusion that might hurt his relationships with the people who could make or break his firm. This will happen to Sam Roop, not because he is a bad person, but because he is human.

Our city government has gone through a tough couple of years, and the City Council has had to make some tough decisions -- freezing and cutting budgets, investigating inefficiency and possible wrongdoing at the city's airports, revisiting the city's water policy, to name a few. Every tough decision means the possibility of offending someone, often someone in management who would be in a position either to grease the skids or to block the path for a contract with Sam Roop's firm.

The mere appearance of a conflict will raise questions about Sam Roop's decisions, particularly on controversial issues, particularly when he has changed his position on a controversial issue. Tulsans will reasonably wonder: Why did Sam Roop suddenly see the wisdom of having Tulsa water customers pay for a new water line for Owasso? Sam Roop's company is trying to sell its services to "many other cities in the state." Owasso City Manager Rodney Ray is only human, and if Sam Roop, Tulsa Councilor, had voted to cut the line, Ray probably wouldn't be very receptive to a proposal from Sam Roop, entrepreneur. That thought may never have consciously entered Sam Roop's mind, but the question will always be there. The same questions will hang over whatever decision he makes on appointments to the water board or the investigation of the airport authority -- both authorities are potential customers of Roop's new company.

There's a further question, beyond a conflict of interest: Sam Roop met with employees of the Telecommunications Department, according to the story. According to the City Charter, Article 2, Section 19:

Except for the purpose of investigation under Article II, Section 17, of this amended Charter, the Council and Councilors shall communicate on matters of city business with the executive and administrative service solely through the Mayor, the heads of each division and department of the City, as well as such other persons as the Mayor shall designate.... Violation of this Section by any Councilor shall constitute willful maladministration and be sufficient grounds for removal from office as provided by the laws of Oklahoma.

This scenario -- a City Councilor meeting with city employees in the interest of personal gain rather than the public interest -- is precisely the sort of inappropriate influence this section of the charter is intended to prevent.

"No man can serve two masters," Jesus said, "for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other." Sam Roop cannot honestly do his job as a City Councilor and try at the same time to be a vendor to the City of Tulsa. Sam Roop is a good man, but he is a man nevertheless.

In his years as a councilor, Sam Roop has taken some stands that made people in city government angry. I have praised him in the past for being willing to make the right choice even if it meant offending someone. Our City Council majority has had the boldness to make the right choices in part because all five were immune from pressure on their employers. But now, as a businessman seeking to do business with city governments, Sam Roop can't afford to anger any city official, and that's going to blunt his effectiveness as a watchdog for the people of this city. He can't afford to anger the officials in other cities, and that's going to blunt his ability to champion Tulsa's interests when they conflict with the interests of other cities.

I like Sam Roop, and I'm happy for him that after a long stretch of unemployment, he has found a way to earn a living, a way that could be very lucrative. I wish him well in his new business. But as he pursues this new business, there is only one ethical way to handle his Council duties.

Sam Roop must resign from the City Council.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 27, 2004 11:51 AM.

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