Stuart Bennett, Former Zoning Board for six years
On Jan. 12, the Charlotte development review board adopted a conflict-of-interest definition that does not distinguish a conflict of interest from an opinion. That’s one reason why we are seeing so much turmoil on the development review board.
For perspective, the classic conflict of interest definition for municipal and county governance is found in Vermont statutes, Title 24 Municipal and County Governance.
It focuses on a “direct personal or pecuniary interest” in a pending matter. This is straightforward and easy to understand.
“Conflict of interest means a direct personal or pecuniary interest of a public official, or the official’s spouse, household member, business associate, employer or employee in the outcome of a cause, proceeding, application, or any other matter pending before the official or before the agency or public body in which the official holds office or is employed.”
The Charlotte Selectboard definition is much the same since it prohibits gaining a “personal or financial advantage” or having “a direct or indirect financial interest” in decisions concerning the business of the town.
Both the state and town definitions limit the conflict to personal or financial gain from an official act. We get it. A member of the selectboard cannot approve a town contract for his personal gain.
However, the development review board definition has no terms to objectively define its intent. Instead, its language can easily be construed to prevent development review board members from having different opinions on issues before the board. Differing opinions is healthy. But a conflict-of-interest accusation is serious and better be based on facts.
The development review board prohibits a member’s “direct or indirect interest or involvement” in the outcome of any matter pending before the board. If a board member has publicly prejudged a pending matter, they can get a pass if it is just the member’s “political views or general opinion on a given issue.”
A “direct or indirect interest or involvement” is in the eye of the beholder. It is not limited to financial or personal interests. The exception for “political views and general opinion” is equally opaque.
And, to make matters worse, this prohibition applies to the development review board member’s blood relatives, i.e. “child, stepchild, parent, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, aunt or uncle, brother or sister-in-law, cousin or other familial relation.”
Consider this scenario to see how crazy this can get: Imagine that you are on the development review board and it is reviewing a development involving wetlands. At a neighborhood barbeque the impact of the development’s paved road on amphibians comes up. You comment that frogs commit suicide on paved roads at night all the time, so let’s not get too worked up about this issue. Your 13-year-old son agrees: “Yeah Dad, just let the developer pave them over.”
Oops. You and your child have just publicly said that you don’t care about paving over frogs. And the paved road only encourages suicide.
Next thing you know you are accused of a conflict of interest. Why? Because you and your child apparently have an “interest or involvement” in this project which might kill frogs. And you both have the opinion that they aren’t worth protecting.
You try to wriggle out this accusation by saying, “Oh no, those are just my own political views and general opinion about frogs. My son loves animals. And, anyway, my comment about frog suicide was a joke.”
Too late. Your reputation on the development review board is hanging by a thread. You and your son’s opinion about frogs may be misguided, but it is not even close to a conflict of interest.
If this development review board definition is not changed to track the more grounded state and town definitions, we will continue to see conflict of interest accusations tear apart our brand-new development review board, or any other board that may adopt this definition.
And it is an easy fix. Just limit the “direct or indirect interest or involvement” to personal or financial interests. And forget what your children and relatives think.