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The term "appearance of impropriety" has become such a cliche in today's society that it has its own Wikipedia entry, attributing the phrase to Biblical origins. Its versatility toward 21st-century parlance was proven again earlier this year when an "American Idol" contestant with personal ties to the show's management company was ousted to "avoid the appearance of impropriety."
The narrow path between what's right and what's legal can conceal a gulf of potential misconduct. That's why it's not enough for public officials to simply avoid improper conduct, but also its very appearance. Everyone from St. Paul to Simon Cowell has understood this well-worn concept. Unfortunately, it seems to have escaped the notice of DeKalb City Manager Mark Biernacki and 3rd Ward Alderman Victor Wogen.
Biernacki said when he awarded six work bids in 2008 to a masonry company owned Wogen, he did not consider it "an issue worth making a mention of." The bids totaled $52,880, but because each was less than $20,000, they did not require authorization by the city council; they merely needed Biernacki's approval.
Biernacki said the intentions were good, to do the work at the lowest cost and within the law. But it should have been clear to anyone that additional due diligence was required. If Biernacki was going to hire one of his bosses, he should have made sure the others knew it.
Most of Wogen's peers on the city council say they were not aware he owned the now-defunct Masonry Works LLC. But one alderman did know it, and that, of course, is Wogen. He, even more than Biernacki, should have had the common sense to tell his fellow aldermen when he was bidding on projects and when his company was awarded the work.
That sort of voluntary openness leads to good government. The opposite is true when officials stay mum on clear conflicts of interest, so long as everything is legal. That environment encourages a widening of that gulf between what's right and what's legal, a gray area that tends to breed waste and corruption if allowed to fester.
Now, DeKalb officials are looking to strengthen disclosure rules. That's a good idea, but one that would not have been necessary if someone had simply stood up and said, "Oh, by the way ..."