NC Council of State members shouldn’t serve on corporate boards

Dan Blue III must have gotten the message from the response to State Treasurer Janet Cowell’s decision to accept two lucrative corporate board positions prior to leaving office. Blue initially said he’d view board offers on a case-by-case basis, but now the Democrat seeking to succeed Cowell says he won’t take the posts. His Republican opponent, Dale Folwell, said from the beginning of the race that he wouldn’t sit on boards of directors.

Now, most other candidates for the independently elected Council of State seats say they won’t take such positions. That’s the right decision, and it never even should have been a question for those candidates.

The State Ethics Commission was simply wrong to give Cowell a qualified OK to take the board spots, which will bring her $125,000 in retainers plus restricted stock. Cowell pledged to recuse herself from any potential conflicts – she’s in charge of an $86.6 billion pension fund and the state retirement plan – but she should have known better after a career in public service at the local and state level.

Gov. Pat McCrory, as his spokesman noted, resigned from two board positions before he took office. And though Lt. Gov. Dan Forest unfortunately declined to say what he would do, he apparently does not serve on a corporate board.

Corporations of all sorts, particularly money management firms, do business with the state, and others would like to. Having an elected official on a board at the least would create an impression that a company had an inside track compared with other companies.

Doubtless all Council of State members could field offers of corporate board spots, but none should be accepted. Council of State members serve the people and only the people, period. They don’t need to be moonlighting. The jobs pay roughly $125,000 a year. That’s plenty enough to make the jobs worthwhile.

If ethics rules allow this sort of thing, those rules need to be changed. Frankly, there shouldn’t need to be a written prohibition – candidates and those who serve should know better.

Candidates from the private sector accept, when they decide to run for public office, that they will have to surrender their ties to former jobs or sideline compensation. There shouldn’t be any gray areas, any questions. Cowell shouldn’t have taken the issue to the ethics commission; she should simply have said no.

It is good to see that other candidates recognize the clarity of the choice.