CAWCD board member resigns to eliminate perception of husband’s possible conflict of interest

The Central Arizona Project delivers approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year.  

Gayle Burns recently submitted her resignation from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) board of directors citing a growing sentiment that her position posed a possible conflict of interest for her husband, Bob, a member of Arizona Corporation Commission.

In a letter of resignation dated March 14 and addressed to CAWCD President Lisa Atkins, Gayle Burns said being a board member was feeding a notion that her husband, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns, should not be allowed to vote on matters relating to water or energy.

“Due to a reported perception of a possible conflict of interest created by my being a member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board of directors I am resigning immediately to eliminate that perception,” Gayle Burns said in the letter.

Burns, who has been married to Bob for over 52 years, added that serving on the board has been a privilege and honor and forwarded a copy of her resignation letter to Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan.

Tyler Montague, president of the Public Integrity Alliance (PIA), a watchdog group, said he doesn’t know what other factors went into her decision, but he believes Burns’ resignation was probably the best way to eliminate any possible conflict of interest.

“That is one way to do it and I think it is appropriate,” Montague told Arizona Business Daily. “I think he (Bob Burns) could have stayed on the commission and navigated around that I suppose. But it is better to remove all appearances, I think, to go with the magnifying glass that has been on the commission. So I think that was an appropriate way to address it, but then again, I don’t know what all went into her decision or why.”

Montague said as far as PIA is concerned, Gayle Burns' resignation was a good move in the context of any decision that would affect the Central Arizona Project (CAP).

CAP is Arizona's single largest resource for renewable water supplies and stretches over 336 miles, delivering approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona every year.

CAP uses the energy produced by the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal-fired power plant, to pump water uphill to Phoenix. Some believe as commissioner of a regulatory body that adopts rules governing public utilities and other organizations, Bob Burns would have a conflict of interest in any energy or water-related votes given his wife’s involvement with CAP.

Bob Burns has served the people of Arizona in the legislature for over 25 years and has received numerous accolades for his dedication and public service. Two of the awards he received were the Watchdog Award, which is given to legislators who fight for the taxpayers by the Arizona Tax Research Association, and the Legislator of the Year Award, which is given by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Despite Bob Burns' good reputation, PIA was one of the voices calling attention to the commissioner’s potential conflict of interest.

When asked if Bob Burns’ former decisions regarding CAP should be looked into, Montague said although PIA hasn’t launched an investigation, it hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

“We haven’t undertaken that as an organization although we may. It is not something we have determined to do though,” Montague said.

Montague added that whether or not conflict played into Bob Burn’ previous decisions is an open-ended question. But going forward, any future potential conflicts have been resolved by Gayle Burns’ resignation.

Northern Arizona University Regents' Professor of Politics & International Affairs Zachary Smith said there is no doubt Gayle Burns’ position created a conflict for her husband.

“If his wife is directly involved in matters that come before the commission then there is no question it is a conflict,” Smith told Arizona Business Daily. “That kind of thing unfortunately seems to go on in Arizona quite a bit lately. But yes, in my opinion, that would be a conflict. It doesn’t have to be something she was doing directly; this is someone who he is married to in a community property state.”

As far as reassessing all of Bob Burns’ previous decisions, Smith said the chances are slim.

“The law doesn’t work that way," Smith said. "It would be possible for members of the commission to decide to reopen the issue and re-examine it, but politically I think that is highly unlikely. But the law doesn’t work that way - what has happened, has happened and essentially unless the attorney general wanted to investigate for something then nothing is going to happen.”

Gayle Burns' was first elected to the CAWCD board in November 2006 to represent Maricopa County from Jan. 1, 2007, through Dec. 31, 2012. She was then appointed to complete the unexpired term of Tim Bray by former Gov. Janice “Jan” Brewer in December 2012. Gayle Burns' term is scheduled to end in December.

The board is responsible for establishing water policy for the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

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