In signing up for a one-year loan of $8,000 personal computers for use in their homes, four Salt Lake City Council members are not necessarily doing anything illegal as long as the computers are used only for city business. Even so, the deal doesn't look right. And when it comes to elected officials, appearance can be important.
The computers are being provided by Unisys, which holds a virtual monopoly on city computer business. It has sold the city some $10 million worth of computer hardware and software since 1984, and gets about $500,000 a month for maintenance and licensing fees. All of that business was won in competitive bidding.Yet this loan to part-time council members from a vendor having significant business dealings with the city has overtones justified or not of influence peddling. City law sets a $50 limit on gifts that officials can accept that would tend to influence their official duties.
While the council members Sydney Fonnesbeck, Tom Godfrey, Alan Hardman, and L. Wayne Horrocks might make good use of the loaned computers in city business, there are enough questions to create an uncomfortable situation.
Just how uncomfortable is indicated by the fact that the mayor and three other council members have turned down the loan of the computers. All said they didn't need the machines, and some expressed reservations about the offer.
City Attorney Roger Cutler says the loan of the computers does not appear to violate city laws, but he also has questions about the propriety of such an arrangement. And if some city officials are concerned, there undoubtedly will be citizens who will draw unflattering conclusions.
In such situations, the best rule to follow is still the one that says public officials should avoid not only wrong-doing itself but even the appearance of it.