In an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

It is not easy to choose to do public service. Whether one joins the military, serves on a town committee or runs for public office, the choice to act on behalf of others places one in a position that offers challenges and temptations of personal gain.

But public service means that once an oath of office is taken, all actions made in that capacity must carry the mantle of service and be done in accordance with the rules and policies that govern that service. Those rules are built on a simple principle: public office holders, whether appointed or elected, must put the good of constituents first and avoid conflicts of interest.

Rockport resident Stephen Bowen is right to point out that the harm caused by perceived conflicts of interest is not confined to actions taken directly on issues. His own town is struggling this month as the Select Board and other community members sort out issues related to the municipal charter, that document that provides a manual of self-governance for one particular town, and is approved by voters. Anyone who has stepped into the Rockport Town Office in the past week or so can probably attest to the charged atmosphere of a government under fire.

We do not agree with Lord Acton’s statement that “great men are almost always bad men.” In our culture of self-governance, most everyone who gets involved on any municipal, county, state or school board deserves commendation for stepping forward to help lead. Some are business owners, some are farmers, some are fishermen, some are poets. They are all reinforcing the foundation of democracy.

But those in leadership are held to higher expectations of accountability, and, whether volunteer or elected with a small stipend, all board members must always think about why they are serving. And they must constantly review governing documents, including charters, and even rules of order, that guide their decision making and their meetings.

The job of government is to prevent conflict, not revise itself whenever conflict surfaces. The job of government is to move forward the business of the people so that we can concentrate on building strong communities and healthy economies, and not become preoccupied with political tensions.