By editorial board • 

County public works spat much ado about very little

By his own admission, Public Works Director John Phelan made a mistake last summer when he had a pair of county shop employees stick around after hours to fix the air conditioning system on his truck.

But by no stretch does this year-old misdeed rise to the level of a hanging offense. Our advice to the county commissioners, hardly above occasional reproach themselves, is to exact restitution, issue a reprimand and move on. This little squabble isn’t worth any more than that.

Phelan was planning to drive to Montana for a family reunion over the Fourth of July weekend of 2015. But a sensor failed, leaving him without air, and he couldn’t get his rig scheduled into a commercial shop in time. So he asked a couple of employees to perform the half-hour repair on their own time, using a replacement part he supplied.

Of course, given the electronic saturation of our era, someone seized the opportunity to snap a photo for posterity. It immortalized the repair job in permanent pixels, readily available when a union records grievance arose some 12 months later.

Oregon law governing public employee ethics is filled with the usual whereas, wherefore and whereupon legalisms, but it ultimately boils down to this: You can’t use your public office for private gain. And because we ordinary citizens can’t run our rigs over to the county shop in a pinch, the public works director is realizing a private gain when he seizes such an opportunity.

Phelan might have swapped vehicles with his wife, rented a replacement vehicle, hitched a ride with a relative, undertaken the repair on his own, enlisted the aid of a handy neighbor or simply gone without air. In short, he might have exercised the same kind of options open to the rest of us.

To his credit, he was forthright in recognizing that. In fact, he came down to the paper on his own volition to fess up. He could have hidden behind the privacy protections extended to employees under official scrutiny, but took the more open and honorable course.

He actually comes off better in this affair than the union.

The union appears to be dredging up this indiscretion as payback for a perceived public records slight. And to our way of thinking, that’s a more egregious ethical corner than the one cut by its adversary.


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