When he was running for the Grand Traverse County board in 2012, commissioner Dan Lathrop openly acknowledged he lives with and co-owns a house with county Drain Commissioner Kevin McElyea.
And in an endorsement interview with the Record-Eagle, Lathrop was quick to give assurances that he would recuse himself from votes that dealt directly with McElyea's job or his compensation to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
It was pretty standard stuff. Those who hold elective office are expected to step aside when the issue involves their uncle or business partner. The public needs to know decisions are being based - theoretically, anyway - on the public interest and not familial or personal ties.
Lathrop had given similar assurances to voters and others who wondered if his relationship with McElyea would influence the way he would do his job.
So it was disappointing - and news - when Lathrop voted with a 4-3 commission committee majority to approve McElyea's plan to restore his authority to handle storm water control duties in some county villages and townships.
This matters because McElyea''s job status has been the subject of some ham-handed board politics in recent years. In 2012, at the urging of some well-connected area developers who didn't like the way McElyea - an elected official - was enforcing state soil erosion and storm water rules, the county board voted to strip him of those duties and slashed his salary to reflect his reduced work load.
The board handed the job of monitoring storm water laws to county building inspectors, who are ill-equipped to do the work. It was pure power politics and smelled to high heaven.
So it mattered when McElyea suggested that he - along with the county prosecutor's office - begin doing the job again for Fife Lake Township and Fife Lake Village. It was that proposal the board committee, including Lathrop, approved 4-3.
McElyea won't be paid for the new work, but he's back in the game.
Lathrop said he changed his mind about recusing himself from McElyea-related votes after he took office, obviously too late for voters to decide if that was a good idea. That's outrageous, but there's nothing voters can do about that until - and if - Lathop runs for office again.
Lathrop said the issue of storm water control is "too important" for him to sit out such votes. He should have thought of that before he ran for office and made promises he wouldn't keep.
Lathrop’s vote was legal under Michigan law, according to a memo prepare by Bob Cooney, the county’s civil counsel and elected prosecuting attorney. But the ethical standing of Lathrop’s decision not to abstain is less clear.
The county’s code of ethics requires officials to “avoid all situations where prejudice, bias, or opportunity for personal gain could influence their decisions.” Even the appearance of improper conduct should be avoided, according to the memo.
But as is typical of Grand Traverse County, the ethics rules are so toothless commissioners can essentially do as they please as long as they don't violate state law.
Cooney said he believes Lathrop should have abstained, based on the ethics code.
“I think it does create an appearance of impropriety and I’ve told him that,” Cooney said.
But Cooney’s memo to the board doesn’t say that, and county policy doesn't spell out any disciplinary action for ethics code violations or ways to prevent commissioners from voting on matters that represent a potential conflict.
Cooney wrote that “only Lathrop can make the decision whether to abstain from voting” based upon the applicable laws and policies. That's like having no rules at all.
Lathrop has said he did nothing wrong based on the opinions of two attorneys he consulted in the aftermath of the Dec. 11 meeting.
“It boils down to, as far as I know, that if I vote, I don’t break any laws, ethically or legally,” Lathrop said.
Perhaps. But legal and ethical are different things.
Obviously, voters need to remember this episode if Lathrop runs again. and remember that what he says isn't necessarily what he means. He may change his mind or decide the rules don't apply to him. After all, he's done it before.