One of the sillier episodes in recent memory popped up last week, when Kansas City Councilwoman Cindy Circo said she had taken a part-time job with Kansas City Power Light.
The hand-wringing was immediate: does the private-sector job pose a conflict of interest for Circo?
Why, yes it does. Because — spoiler alert — she may vote on issues that affect her employer.
Of course, that conflict exists for almost every elected official in America. KCP crews drive trucks, so I guess Circo will have a conflict if traffic laws are changed.
There may be times, of course, when KCP will ask for special legislation applicable only to the company. At that point, Circo’s actual conflict will be clear, and she can decline to cast a vote.
And the public will be watching, because Circo has disclosed her private sector job. The answer lies in transparency — voters are capable of deciding when a public official improperly enriches himself or herself, as long as they know an officeholder’s outside interests.
Still, Circo’s announcement is a reminder of an important feature of American democracy, especially at the state and local level:It’s a part-time job
Kansas City councilmembers can be lawyers, bankers, businessmen, ministers. Salaried or self-employed. Indeed, they’re expected to have outside jobs.
That’s true in both the Kansas and Missouri legislatures. It’s true for school boards. For some county commissions. The rural water board. The library board.
The pattern reflects one of the most deeply held American myths, that of the citizen-legislator. The farmer drops his scythe, the laborer her hammer, the schoolteacher his chalk, so they can assemble at a convenient time and place and make laws. Then go home.
There’s a lot of truth to that myth, and value. Lawmakers who are close to voters usually reflect their interests and concerns.
But it also means our laws and public policy are made by amateurs, a fact that won’t surprise any casual observer of Topeka or Jefferson City. Many public officials lack even a basic understanding of parliamentary procedure.
And because most make little money in office — or are volunteers — job satisfaction is often more significant than cash. That, in turn, means many elected officials pursue ideologic interests at the expense of compromise.
We don’t expect this in other professions. I’m glad my doctor is full-time.
Perhaps Circo’s conflict of interest is real, after all. Not because she works for KCP, but because we expect her to do so, at the expense of spending time on the public’s business.