• Roger Sims, Journal Staff

Attorney: Commission candidate can avoid conflict of interest


The two candidates for the 1st District race for the Linn County Commission have a short window in which to campaign. With the filing deadline on June 1 and the primary election on August 2, the candidates in the race, both Republicans, now have about six weeks to present their case to voters in Lincoln (both north and south) and Scott townships.


Rosemary T. Long, a retired nurse and nursing instructor currently is co-owner of the Hook ’N’ Deals bait shop in La Cygne.


Jason Hightower, who currently runs his family’s cattle and crop operation, is a former branch manager for First Option Bank and a representative for a crop insurance company.


Hightower is the husband of Linn County Economic Development Director Jessica Hightower, who is in charge of many grants the county applies for, management of the airport, and she has also been the representative to the Linn County Commission for Public Works Administrator Shaun West, who has been working from home with a non-job-related injury.


And while the question of nepotism and conflict of interest might arise from Jason Hightower’s bid for a commission seat. Neither of those will likely be a factor if he is elected to office.


Because Jessica was hired prior to Jason’s filing for office, it is not a case of nepotism. She has demonstrated to most observers that she is very qualified to do her job.


Avoiding a potential conflict of interest will require approaching things with more care.


In an email on the issue from County Counselor Gary Thompson, he said that because Jason is not Jessica’s direct supervisor, it should not be an issue as long as he abstains from voting on extending or terminating her contract or salary increases specifically for her.


Thompson said Jason can vote on across-the-board salary increases for all employs, just not an increase for her specifically.


The situation is similar to the spouse of a teacher being elected to the school board, a not uncommon occurrence.


Three members of the seven member Prairie View USD 362 Board of Education – Brian Uphoff, Brad Stainbrook and Russell Pope – are married to teachers or other staff members employed by the district. The same is true for Jayhawk USD 346 board members Max Krull, Matt Higgins and Daniel Earnest, who all have spouses or children working for the district.


State regulations prevent teachers or other staff members from serving on the boards of education.


Thompson’s take on potential conflict, sent in an email, was as follows:


“All commissioners are bound by two separate restrictions in regard to any family members employed by the County.


“Conflict of Interest- This is specifically and definitively about financial matters. Law and case law, as well as Attorney General Opinions, makes it clear that the relative of a commissioner can be a county employee or contractor so long as the commissioner does not participate in any financial or contractual decision regarding that employee, if the commissioner has any financial benefit coming from a decision.

“So if the spouse of a commissioner is employed by the county, that fact would have to be known and the commissioner would need to abstain from discussion or action on any financial matter directly tied to a benefit for that employee.


“Examples:

  • Commission votes to hire Spouse of a commissioner- the commissioner should abstain

  • Commission votes to give the Spouse a merit raise- the commissioner should abstain

  • Commission votes to reassign the Spouse from one department to another, without pay change- the commissioner may participate (though I would recommend he didn’t)

  • Commission votes to give an across the board raise to all employees- the commissioner may participate

  • Commission votes to increase health care benefits for all employees- the commissioner may participate.

“2. Nepotism- The personnel handbook says an employee should not be directly supervised by a relative. It appears that this would allow the employment of the spouse of a commissioner so long as the spouse is not directly under the supervision of the Commission. The handbook also says the Commission may vote to create exceptions to this policy.”


Thompson said his opinion could evolve as he studied the matter.

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