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Editorial: Nebraska lawmakers should scrutinize the state’s conflict of interest laws

It’s uncertain what the final result will be from the legal wrangling over a proposed wind farm in the Nebraska Sand Hills. But one aspect of this issue ought to be certain: The Legislature next year should scrutinize and debate the proper way for state law to define conflicts of interest for public officials.

In the wind farm case, a Nebraska District Court judge in July temporarily blocked two Cherry County Board members from voting on an application for the project. This week the judge vacated the order, concluding that the board members’ family connections don’t constitute a conflict of interest as defined by current state law.

One board member’s wife sits on the board of directors for Cherry County Wind LLC, which connects its investor landowners with the project’s developer. This board member’s mother has leased land to Cherry County Wind.

The other board member in question has multiple family members, including brothers, a sister and her parents, connected to the project.

The judge may well be correct that as currently defined in state statutes, there are no conflicts of interest in the matter. But there’s a broader, long-term issue involved: Is current state law on conflicts of interest adequate in its clarity and restrictions on elected officials? Nebraska lawmakers should conduct a careful examination of that question next year, determining whether the law meets a responsible standard and if not, how it should be revised.

The state has a twofold duty on this issue. It should provide sound guidance to local government on what constitutes a conflict of interest. And it should provide reassurance to the public that proper safeguards are in place to ensure that the public interest, and not personal interests, decide government action.