Conflicts of interest revealed!

by Brian Clarey

I thought we did a pretty good job covering the Greensboro municipal election this year, with thousands upon thousands of words in print and online, face-to-face interviews with just about every seri- ous candidate — and a few not-so-serious ones.

We engaged in a lengthy and reasoned endorsement process, and we busted our asses on election night to get the results, along with photos and quotes, in the next day’s paper.

That hasn’t made us immune to criticism, particularly from those who feel the election did not go their way. Most of the reaction from those quarters I dismiss as sour grapes.

But looking back, I realize that I haven’t been entirely honest in my own personal prejudices and conflicts of interest.

The whole “conflict of interest” thing is tough in a city like Greensboro, where there seems to be only two or three degrees of separation between any of its citizens. Reporters often find themselves interviewing people they know, tackling subjects that directly affect their friends and families, sometimes even covering issues and events that affect themselves.

The key, of course, is transparency — when a reporter has a conflict or a prior relationship with a story subject, he must make it known in the course of the story in something we call a “disclosure.” But because conflicts are so common in Greensboro reporting, sometimes we don’t even realize when disclosure is necessary. At least that’s what happened to me during the election.

As it turns out I have personal relationships with more than half of the candidates who ran for office last week.

Now that the dust has settled, I’d like to make my conflicts known.

Starting at the top, Mayor Bill Knight, who I don’t personally know very well, is close friends with my in-laws and has known my wife for 20 years. He still would not schedule a candidate interview with our endorsement team, and he did not return any of my phone calls. So much for that.

And though I have no real connection with Robbie Perkins, his estranged wife Carole has written for me in this publication. I know the last time I spoke with her, she was upset with me; I don’t recall specifically why, but no doubt there was something I did to deserve it.

I have conflicts with all three newly elected at-large council members. Yvonne Johnson’s grandkids went to school with my children for five years or so. I have written about Marikay Abuzuaiter’s restaurant, Mahi’s, at least once. And Nancy Vaughan’s husband, Don, is my lawyer.

I have a conflict with Wayne Abraham, who lost the at-large race, as well — my friend Allen Broach ran his campaign. And though I do not really know Danny Thompson, the incumbent who lost his seat in last week’s election, my friend Big Al does know him through various marketing groups in town. Al says he’s hilarious, but that wasn’t enough to sway my endorsement decision.

I have no conflicts in District 1, but I did run into DJ Hardy on the street the other day while I was walking ahead of an Occupy Greensboro march and he was on his way to a benefit at the Cultural Arts Center.

I live in District 2, just a couple of miles from the White Street Landfill as it turns out, though there was a time when I thought we should max out its lifespan. So I have a vested interest in property values and crime rates, and I think there should be more sidewalks.

Jay Ovittore, who lost to incumbent Zack Matheny in District 3, is a personal friend of mine. I have watched him grow from an unemployed drummer into an active member of the community, seen his political acumen sharpen through his previous campaigns. I like to think our endorsement of him had nothing to do with our association. But maybe it did.

I don’t have much of a conflict in District 4, but in 2009 I spent the last days of the Scott Sanders trial seated next to Mary Rakestraw, and though we disagreed about much of what transpired in the Greensboro Police Department fiasco that led to the hearing, we had a fine old time dissecting the case and weighing its merits.

My only conflict in District 5 is that both Jorge Cornell and I hail from the New York metropolitan area and we both like the NY football Giants. Oh, and I used to be in a street gang.

Kidding! I also have a conflict with Tony Wilkins, who we endorsed as a write-in candidate in District 5. I once almost bought a set of bunk beds from his furniture store which was just a half a mile or so from my office, but I found a nearly identical set for much less somewhere else — though I don’t think Wilkins would blame me for making the fiscally conservative choice.