Thursday, April 7, 2016

Deja Vu in Davidson on Conflicts of Interest

Close watchers of activities at Davidson Town Hall may experience a strange feeling of déjà vu at the upcoming town hall meeting where the new West Branch neighborhood on Davidson-Concord Rd  may be discussed. For the second time,  when the project does come up, Davidson Commissioner Brian Jenest is expected to seek recusal from voting on actions impacting the development where his firm ColeJenest&Stone serves as project designer.

As of this writing the agenda for the April 12th Board meeting has not been published, but it is expected to include a vote on a zoning map amendment significantly reducing the size of the proposed commercial area for the project.

One would certainly think Davidson’s Board would allow Jenest to recuse himself from a decision that directly benefits his project, but after what happened back in February when another decision related to the project came before the Board, one cannot be too sure.

In that previous decision, by a vote of 3-1, the remaining Davidson Board members forced Jenest to vote on changing the historic designation of a significant portion of the projects’ land.  Using rather convoluted reasoning Board members Graham, Fuller, and Anderson concluded that even though Jenest’s firm was working on the project, and that there could be consequences to the project if the historic designation change didn’t go through, they somehow decided it did not have financial impact to Jenest.

Only Commissioner Beth Cashion took the more common sense approach and voted to allow Jenest to be recused.  (To be fair, Jenest ultimately abstained, but abstaining without permission counts as a "yes" vote.)

In the interest of public faith in local government transparency, hopefully things will be different this second time around.

Unfortunately however, it’s not uncommon for the town to find itself in discussions about conflicts of interest.  Just last year, Commissioner Graham who is a developer and builder asked to be recused from a vote involving the town’s affordable housing ordinance.  As has been written about in previous columns, the outgoing town attorney, Rick Kline, has done a lot of work for developers in town over many years.  In 2015, he was asked by the Board to contact the state bar in relation to his activities particularly those involving the Bradford neighborhood.

In fact, after the February vote regarding the change in the historic designation on the Westmoreland Farm property, one town insider contacted me saying if Jenest was recused “for every project he has in Davidson, he would never vote on anything.”  While that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration, a quick look at the current projects on the town planning department website shows Jenest’s firm involved in no less than three current projects including West Branch.

It would be nice if local officials never put themselves in these situations, but sadly, that’s not always the case.

Now to be very, very clear, none of this in any way means any laws or rules have been broken on any projects.  The folks involved are all smart people who understand the rules and what exactly needs to be done to stay within the letter of the law.

At the same time, just strictly following the letter of the law can often leave the spirit of the law bruised and battered.  Board members shouldn’t have to go through the same kabuki theater every time there is a potential for conflict of interest.  It’s theater where Board members ask the town attorney to explain the rules. (They already know them.) The Board then finely parses the meaning of those rules. (Again, they already know them.) Finally, the Board attempts to read the mind of the member asking to be recused to see if they believe their fellow member who is stating he/she have a justifiable conflict. (The Amazing  Kreskin they are not.)

How about this?  If a member asks to be excused for what sounds like a reasonable reason surrounding a member’s financial interest, the Board should recuse that member.  If the voters think a member has been recused too many times, they’ll sort that out.

It would be great to see that approach implemented in Davidson starting with this pending West Branch vote.

This post originally appeared today in the Herald Weekly at 

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