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Conflict of Interest Serving on a Government Committee



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    This case is a bit unusual in that the conflict of interest
    here evidently occurred through trying to comply with state
    law. The law requires that two seats on the waste planning
    committee be held by industry representatives, but the two who
    are appointed, Matthews and Parkinson, are connected with a
    plan to site the county landfill in Barker township, where the
    residents charge conflict of interest. It is not clear in what
    the conflict consists, but presumably the accusation is that
    Matthews and Parkinson's firms will benefit if the dump is
    situated in Barker.

    Conflict of interest is easy to charge and hard to disprove.
    Often it seems that appearance of conflict amounts to nothing
    more than someone saying that there is such a conflict. Since
    passions about things like landfills are apt to become intense,
    it is politically foolish, even if not necessarily ethically
    objectionable, for anyone to sit on a planning board where even
    the whisper of conflict of interest is possible. There must be
    other industry representatives who don't have proposals before
    the County Waste Board. Neither Matthews nor Parkinson want to
    resign. They seem to have made it a point of personal pride not
    to succumb to pressure which they consider unjustified. But it
    is a mistake to allow one's sense of honor to stand in the way
    of getting the task done. These accusations will poison the
    board's deliberations and cause the decision to drag on
    forever. Neither Matthews nor Parkinson should serve on the
    board. They have made their defense, which is their right, and
    they need not admit any culpability. Now they should resign for
    the public good.

  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    My discussion of this case will extend the general approach
    to conflicts of interest which I initially presented in my
    commentaries on the golfing and the last resort? cases. From
    this point of view, problems of 'conflict of interest' in which
    one person has several roles involving different interests (in
    the present case, for example, David Parkinson is both a solid
    waste expert and a member of a County Planning Committee) are
    generally problematic not because of supposed 'conflicts' of
    those interests, but rather because of the amount of moral
    temptation present, or assumed to be present, in such

    An important difference for ethics and public policy arising
    from this distinction is that no easy, automatic solution is
    available in apparent 'conflict' cases, if one accepts my view.
    On this view, someone's apparent conflict is no sure evidence
    that he or she did anything wrong, or even that he should
    remove himself from the situation (by resigning, etc.). The
    'conflict' may merely be evidence that he could have been
    tempted (since tempting factors existed), even if in fact he
    did not give in to temptation (in which case his status or
    judgement were not compromised).

    It is tempting for us to try to simplify such cases by
    saying, in effect, that if there is even the appearance of a
    conflict of interest in some public position held by X, then X
    should be forced to resolve the conflict by resigning, dropping
    one of his interests, etc. In some cases this seems a
    legitimate point, and in the present case where over 100 of the
    500 citizens of Barker Township are apparently concerned about
    possible conflicts in the cases of Matthews and Parkinson, then
    the 'appearance' of conflict is politically visible and
    divisive enough that perhaps there should be a re-election for
    the positions held by Matthews and Parkinson.

    However, we all have to be concerned that the 'appearance'
    of conflict in some situations may be artificially generated as
    a political or social ploy. In the present case, clearly
    residents of Barker Township don't want a landfill sited in
    their township, so it seems likely that their 'landfill
    defense' teams will produce as reasons anything they think will
    'play' well in the newspapers or the courts. The 'conflict of
    interest' charges would almost certainly never have been raised
    in the present case if Barker Township hadn't been targeted for
    landfill development. There has to be something more to the
    idea of the 'appearance' of a conflict than simply that some
    people claim or allege there is a conflict, because such people
    could have highly biased or even malicious reasons for their

    A more familiar kind of case in which accusations of
    conflicts of interest might inappropriately or maliciously be
    raised concerns issues such as the rights of gay (homosexual)
    people to hold jobs. Militant anti-gay groups have tried to
    have gay people removed from various jobs such as teaching
    positions, on the ground that there is a conflict between their
    interest in finding sexual partners and their interest in
    properly carrying out their professional responsibilities.

    This kind of case well illustrates my point that conflicts
    of interests do not by themselves produce moral or legal
    problems, because of course no-one would suggest that
    heterosexual teachers should be banned from teaching because of
    their own conflicts of interest in similar situations. In other
    words, some conflicts (or potential conflicts) are so pervasive
    as to be almost part of 'the human condition', yet they cause
    moral problems only if people 'give in' to the temptations they

    Finally, note that a special factor in the present case is
    that both Matthews and Parkinson needed to have, by
    requirements of state law, the kind of interests (one had to be
    a solid waste industry representative, and the other an expert
    in solid waste) which led to the apparent conflicts. On my view
    of conflicts, this is unproblematic, because the advantages in
    having expert opinions available on a committee generally
    outweigh the risk that office-holders will succumb to
    temptation and misuse their positions. Knowledge and experience
    are important assets in public service, and we are liable to
    lose both if we pursue too zealously the removal or restriction
    of candidates who might have (or be alleged to have) personal
    conflicts of interests.

  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    This case study involves a Locally Unacceptable Land Use,
    sometimes called a LULU. Such planning confrontations have
    traditionally arisen over proposed projects deemed to be
    eyesores or nuisances. The public, however, has become more
    aware of the increasing risks to safety and health associated
    with contemporary hazardous land uses. Confrontations like this
    one are expected to become more frequent and more difficult to

    The development of waste disposal sites has become a complex
    technical challenge, requiring advisory input from qualified
    experts. Technical specialists and related industry
    representatives, such as David Parkinson and Mark Matthews, are
    frequently asked to serve on policy-making bodies. It is
    instructive to explore the general underlying social inequities
    that often lead to land-use planning conflicts and the specific
    causes of distrust associated with this case.

    Consent, fairness, compensation and equitable sharing of
    burdens are principles that result in acceptable land use
    solutions (Simmons 1987). One disturbing reality illustrated in
    this case study is that the poor, minorities, and rural
    residents are often asked to bear an unfair share of the burden
    for undesirable land uses.

    The principle of fairness suggests that the burden of waste
    disposal should be shared equitably among all citizens
    responsible for producing the waste. Poor, rural citizens
    understandably perceive their share of this burden to be
    unfair, since a larger proportion of waste is generated by
    wealthy and urban consumers who can afford to live far from the
    typical solid waste disposal site. Recognition of this
    fundamental inequity suggests that consent for undesirable land
    use will be difficult or impossible to obtain when the affected
    parties do not respect the planning process and do not trust
    those making the decisions. Promises of compensation will be
    viewed with suspicion.

    Proceeding without local consent raises moral questions. In
    some cases, a forced solution may not even be workable, since
    local citizens may be in a position to physically resist the
    development and effective use of the site.

    While the Barker Township residents have not yet adopted a
    militant posture, they clearly feel abandoned by the political
    process. Their attempt to mount a recall campaign has little
    chance for success, given the small population of the Township.
    Should the County Commission proceed with development of the
    Barker Township site, the local residents will likely always
    believe the decision was political, taking advantage of the
    small Township population. This situation is unfortunate, as
    the Barker Township site may, in fact, be the best site among
    alternatives in the County. Arguments based on objective risk
    analysis of ecology, geology and rational comparisons of
    economic implications of alternative sites will not be
    convincing to the residents of Barker Township. They perceive a
    conflict of interest, and in such conflicts the controversy is
    not over the technical qualifications of the decision-makers to
    make the right decision, but rather the trustworthiness of the
    decision-makers to make the right decision. The quality of
    professional judgment is not at stake, but rather the potential
    for violation of trust (Luebke 1987).

    For a moment, let us consider the viewpoints of Matthews and
    Parkinson. These two specialized professionals have donated
    their time, probably without compensation, in this position of
    public service. The need for technical expertise on the Solid
    Waste Management Planning Committee is recognized by state law,
    and these two individuals appear to be qualified for the
    positions. Assuming that Matthews and Parkinson are
    altruistically motivated and not acting in self-interest, they
    will no doubt be frustrated by this experience. Engineers are
    typically not prepared by their education and practice for
    involvement in the political arena. When their objective
    professional judgment is questioned and when their personal
    motives are challenged publicly, the experience can be
    devastating. Many technical professionals choose to avoid
    public service for this very reason.

    Yet the services of technical experts are needed in the
    political arena, and the donation of valuable time is surely
    commendable. The engineer who participates in public service is
    a better engineer as a result of interaction with all segments
    of the population. It is desirable for specialized experts to
    observe the social impact of technical decisions. Such
    involvement should be encouraged and rewarded.

    Potential conflicts of interest, however, may be unavoidable
    when technical consultants serve on public decision-making
    committees (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, Luebke 1987, Davis
    1982). Such conflicts of interest may be direct, such as that
    recognized by Matthews, the potential developer of the site in
    question. Matthews has openly acknowledged his situation and
    has stated that he will not vote on this issue. This may be the
    best approach to take when a clear unavoidable conflict of
    interest arises.

    Parkinson's situation is not so clear, however. An
    appearance of conflict of interest is suggested by his past
    involvement with Matthew's firm as a consulting engineer on
    other projects. Such perceived indirect conflicts are very
    common, and may result from prior consulting positions,
    professional society relationships and personal friendships
    with other technical experts. The dilemma posed by Parkinson's
    position is especially interesting. It is not clear what he
    should ultimately do, but his decision should carefully
    consider the conditions of mistrust that are building in the
    Barker Township. Again, this mistrust is not a challenge to his
    technical qualifications, but rather a challenge to the
    political process of making appointments.

    This perceived conflict of interest situation was avoidable.
    Luebke notes that, while such conflicts are often unavoidable,
    there is a moral obligation to avoid conflict of interest
    situations when they are foreseeable (Luebke 1987). In
    retrospect, the County Commission is clearly to blame for
    placing Matthews and Parkinson in this uncomfortable situation.
    Since opposition to this site development was foreseeable, an
    effort should have been made to advertise the Planning
    Committee positions prior to making the appointments. If no
    other qualified applicants were found, the claims made by the
    Barker Township residents would not be quite so convincing. By
    acting as they did, the County Commissioners have ensured that
    the Barker Township residents have a distrust, not only of
    Matthews and Parkinson, but of the entire County Board and its
    process of making appointments.

    Avoidance is clearly the best way to deal with foreseeable
    conflict of interest situations. Successful land-use planning
    is based in public confidence; public confidence, once lost, is
    very difficult to regain.

    Suggested Readings

    1. Davis, Michael 1982. "Conflict of Interest,"
      Business and Professional Ethics Journal,
      Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 1, No. 4,
      pp. 17-27.

    2. Luebke, Neil R. 1987. "Conflict of Interest as a Moral
      Category," Business and Professional Ethics
      , Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY,
      Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 66-81.

    3. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in
      Engineering (2nd edition)
      , McGraw-Hill, Inc., New
      York, NY, pp. 178-182.

    4. Simmons, A. John 1987. "Consent and Fairness in Planning
      Land Use," Business and Professional Ethics
      , Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY,
      Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 5-24.

Cite this page: "Conflict of Interest Serving on a Government Committee" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Tuesday, May 21, 2019 <>