Brian Manley’s compliance with the ethics rules of the Buffalo & Erie County Workforce Investment Board was virtually spotless and – here’s the problem – troubling, nonetheless.
It was no secret that Manley and his wife owned a temporary staffing agency and that the company had bid for a contract from the WIB board on which he serves as a volunteer. He appropriately stayed out of the decision-making process. And when his company, Imagine Staffing Technology, won the $70,000 contract, no one could claim favoritism based on the numbers: He had submitted the low bid.
But, as one previous WIB chairman observed, the practice just doesn’t smell right. When a corporate official serves on a board – even voluntarily – and then benefits from the public dollars that board spends, it’s too chummy, even when ethics rules are followed.
The Workforce Investment Board is a not-for-profit corporation that spends about $10 million a year running career centers and helping to place workers into new jobs. Members of its governing board are legally allowed do business with the agency as long as they abide by the agency’s conflict-of-interest rules. But legal doesn’t necessarily mean wise.
In Manley’s case, he seems to have followed the rules, which state that an interested person “may explain the circumstances of the conflict of interests to the board, but shall not be present at or participate in board deliberation or vote on the matter, and shall not attempt to influence the deliberation or vote on the matter.”
Minutes from the January meeting when the contract was awarded show that Manley was, appropriately, not present. But the minutes do not report that he had a conflict or how explain how the conflict was resolved, as the rules also require. Plainly, that should have happened. Still, the transaction that benefited Imagine Staffing Technology appears to be legally above-board. That’s certainly good, but the problem isn’t legality.
Warren Galloway, who was WIB chairman when Joel A. Giambra was county executive in the early 2000s, said such funding decisions wouldn’t have been made so easily then. He said the board would have sought guidance from the state Labor Department, the agency that delivers those taxpayer dollars. That would be a smarter approach, assuming such chummy contracts need to be awarded in the first place.
Manley isn’t the only board member whose enterprise has benefited from WIB funding. Board Chairman Charles G. Jones Jr., president of Wittburn Enterprises, said there have been others, though he could specifically think only of Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the nonprofit Buffalo Urban League, which received WIB funding for youth programs last year.
Admittedly, this is a balancing act. Many public boards, including WIB, rely on expert volunteers to help guide their efforts and they are not always easy to come by. It’s important not to needlessly discourage their willingness to serve.
But if someone considering offering their time also thinks he or she might want to bid for that agency’s work, it would be better to think again – and then volunteer somewhere else.