Handbook Highlight: Ethics and Conflicts of Interest

In today’s political environment accountability and ethics are critical ingredients for any public organization. As public libraries continue to develop and expand and rely to a far greater extent on the support of local taxpayers it is essential for every library board to have in place a policy clearly stating the ethical principles upon which they work. In every decision trustees should be sensitive to even the appearance of impropriety.

In this context trustees or their families may not enter into a business relationship with the library, even if they are providing a service below cost. (Sample policyexternal link opens in a new window)

Conflicts of interest are defined in General Municipal Law Section 800. Though trustees of association libraries are generally not considered “public officers,” the State Comptroller has held that “the common law rule (regarding conflicts of interest) is not limited to public officers and municipalities; it also applies to private positions of trust…and is applicable to trustees of a free association library.” [3 OP State Compt 485, 1947].

The Comptroller further states: “…it is wise to have a ‘conflicts of interest policy’ that clearly states the procedures to be followed if a board member’s personal or financial interest may be advanced by an action of the board.
…The organization should also have a code of ethics addressing such issues as transparency, disclosure in fundraising solicitations, integrity in governance and diversity.” [Internal Controls and Financial Accountability for Not-for-Profit Boardsexternal link opens in a new window]

In a similar fashion, library boards are strongly encouraged to adopt anti-nepotism policies to address the management and public relations issues surrounding the employment of both trustees’ and staff family members.

Though not necessarily an ethical or legal issue, “appropriate and professional” behavior by board members is every trustee’s concern and responsibility. You reflect the library to the community. The most successful boards have a positive culture of mutual respect and understanding. When any member acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the library or in the cooperative nature of the board, the Board President should discuss the issue with the trustee in a direct and constructive manner.

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