There's nothing to like about asphalt. It's an extractive petroleum product that, once spread out for roads and parking lots, acts like a heat sink and contributes to climate change. It also disrupts natural drainage and prevents maximum recharging of precious aquifers. It's an environmental triple threat that happens to suck as a parking surface (especially on hot days and, more specifically, if your vehicle has a kickstand) and is an ongoing maintenance nightmare for roads.
Yet the viscous, nasty, foul-smelling stuff is so ubiquitous a substance that it seeps even into the dark heart of local politics and media obsession.
The recent scandal surrounding Santa Fe-based Advantage Asphalt is about as boring as scandals can get. It's standard good-'ol-boy networking and patron politics.
Not to dismiss misuse of public resources and political influence but, as tweaking the system goes, Asphaltgate is sleep-inducing in its normalcy. That so many politicians and government employees have been caught up in the mess seems as indicative of a slow news cycle as anything else.
The media has pounced on the recent revelation that Santa Fe City Councilor Matthew Ortiz also serves as Advantage Asphalt's attorney as though this hidden bombshell had been dug up by enterprising reporters rather than noticed as a routine matter of court proceedings.
But Ortiz has fueled the media's glib enthusiasm by refusing to acknowledge a conflict of interest between his roles as councilor for the City of Santa Fe and counselor to Advantage. As councilor, Ortiz was privy to high-dollar contracts that benefitted Advantage when they came before the finance committee, yet failed to acknowledge his role as Advantage's counselor when considering those contracts.
According to council records, it appears unlikely Ortiz exerted any suspect influence to the benefit of his client. But his assertion that he had no obligations to alter his behavior and that no conflict exists is the stupidest thing that I can remember Ortiz—a very smart man who occasionally says weird stuff—saying while in office. He's trying to finesse a fine point of attorney-client privilege by claiming he was ethically and legally bound to keep his relationship to Advantage secret. But that's not the point. He's obligated to recuse himself in all matters involving his clients. If he wants to keep his reasons for recusal secret, more power to him, but he still needs to step away from the process.
The problem is hubris. Ortiz, in all likelihood, is perfectly capable of compartmentalizing his roles—most people can recognize and avoid ethical conflicts. But the inability to understand that the appearance of conflict of interest cannot be tolerated if the public is to maintain faith in government is a typical case of politician's ego. Ortiz believes he is capable of good judgment outside the realms the public has dictated. That's a double standard that reveals a lack of understanding for voters' needs and motivations. That's a fundamental insult to the notion of democracy.
On the off chance that Ortiz is feeling repentant, now would be a good time for him to illuminate any personal or professional connections to Railyard LLC, the company whose unrealized theater project Ortiz believes merits public assistance. If the fiscally conservative Ortiz happens to have extra-motivation for wanting to suddenly inject public funds into a private development, it would be better to know on the near side of a council vote.
Of course it's way too late to exorcise the public's disregard for government. SFR staff writer Corey Pein's recent breakdown on the anatomy of the government proclamation process reveals a very sad facet of citizens' relationships to government. In this case, Pein pointed out that City Councilor Chris Calvert and Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and his staff issued a proclamation for "Heydar Aliyev Day" without researching the finer points of the deceased Aliyev's career as the corrupt dictator of Azerbaijan.
But the surprising tragedy of this incident isn't the city's inability to google or the mayor's willingness to sign an official document drafted by the PR guy who requested the proclamation—it's the institutional dedication to the rote functionality of public appeasement.
The city's proclamation policy (you draft it, we'll sign it) suggests a situation in which government can't do much for the needs and pleasures of citizens beyond signing meaningless proclamations. It doesn't matter, really, whether the proclamations are for puppy dogs or tin pot dictators—the functionality of the "honor" is to deliver a pat on the head while the larger beast of government continues to grow increasingly intangible—except when obstructionist—in the daily lives of citizens.
It's not true that government does nothing tangible—it does plenty. But its actions take place within such a regrettable and unnavigable morass of meetings, committees, ordinances and acronyms that it is reduced to doling out official proclamations as evidence of its ties to humanity.
So, in honor of morass, in honor of the viscous stuff we wade through when media and government collide and, not least, in honor of homophones, maybe Councilor Ortiz will set conflicts aside and draft a proclamation for Asphalt Day. We know the mayor will probably sign it.
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