The Toronto Star recently reported that the city’s beleaguered Mayor, Rob Ford, has stumbled yet again. The mayor, it seems, opted not to use the city’s standard (cheap) method of having business cards printed. Instead, he opted to go his own route. That might not be a surprising move, coming from a maverick mayor, except for two facts. One is that his way cost a fair bit more. The other is that his way meant giving the contract to his own family’s printing business.
Three additional points are worth making.
First, this is an actual, bona fide conflict of interest. The Star reports City Councillor Josh Matlow as being critical of Ford’s decision, and wondering if the decision carried the risk of “a perceived conflict of interest.” Perhaps Matlow was pulling his punches, attempting to be collegial. But the term “perceived conflict of interest” is properly reserved for situations in which the concerned observers might understandably but wrongly think that the decision-maker had an external interest that could have influenced his decision-making, perhaps because outsiders are misinformed about who was responsible for what decisions.
Second, as always, it’s important to differentiate conflict of interest from corruption. The term “corruption” implies a level of intentionality not required to establish conflict of interest. You can be in a conflict of interest through no fault of your own. Whether there was fault, in the present case, is for voters (and quite possibly the city’s city’s integrity commissioner) to decide.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the dollar amounts here are pretty small. The total cost of the business cards Ford ordered is just a tad over $1,500. Compared to the city’s budget, or even just the budget for the mayor’s office, that’s pocket change. But one thing that corruption and conflict of interest share in common is that size isn’t always the issue. What’s at issue in conflict of interest matters is the need to protect the integrity of the institution, and in particular the way key stakeholders perceive its decision-making processes. Whether in business or in public office, it is crucial not just that top executives make the right decisions, but that they be seen as making decisions on the right basis.