Planning Board and Conflict of Interest

It’s been a week where even sensible Americans are suspecting their government is being run by criminal thugs.  The IRS admits to having targeted groups for their political beliefs, we learn the Associated Press’ White House lines were tapped for two months by the Department of Justice, and that the government deliberately lied to Americans about the Benghazi debacle.  It is hard to turn our attention to local issues, but in a way local issues are reassuring. We can at least control our own house – or so we would like to think.  A suggestion of conflict of interest has been raised in the Planning Board by the chairman of that body.  Is it truly a conflict and if so, is anyone prepared to do anything about it?

Mr. Matthew Brown is a voting member of the Sandown Planning Board. He owns a house and an extra lot in Phillips Pond Estates, both formerly owned by developer Robert Villella (or his interests).  At the special Planning Board meeting last night, Chairman Traeger reported that Matt Brown has a mortgage for $50,000 held by Robert Villella, information that is public record.

Does a private financial arrangement between a member of the planning board and a prominent developer, who not infrequently appears as an applicant before the board, constitute a conflict of interest?  I certainly think so, but Mr. Brown has another opinion and refuses to recuse himself from voting on future business associated with Mr. Villella.  I’ll get to Mr. Brown’s  reasoning shortly. First some background about what prompted last night’s special meeting.

The last regular Planning Board meeting was on April 16th, and it was an explosive one. I recommend watching that meeting on VIMEO as it is at times actually exciting.  Last night, Chairman Traeger said that “unusual events” took place at the April 16th meeting, “…people pushing to get a plan accepted with outstanding issues.” (Mr. Traeger was absent for the April 16th meeting which was chaired by Mr. Matt RUSSELL.)  The board voted 3 to 2 in favor of approving a lot change requested by Mr. Villella in Hillside Estates.  This vote succeeded over the strong objection of Acting Chair Russell who reminded the board that there existed three outstanding issues to be resolved before final approval should be given.  Matt Brown, Ed Mencis and Ernest Brown (no relation) voted in favor.  Matt Russell and Steve Miesner voted against.

So appalled at the board’s vote, Mr . Russell said he would refuse to sign the plat.  This caused a vigorous objection from Matt Brown who argued that the chairman should do as the board directed.  In the end, Mr. Russell said he would sign the plat when Mr. Villella provided a written easement to the fire pond he had constructed in the development. That would satisfy one of the three outstanding issues. Mr. Villella subsequently provided the easement and the plat was signed outside of a public meeting, in violation of the board’s own by-laws.  The two remaining issues, an after-the-fact dredge and fill permit from the state, and another wetlands related permit have not been resolved, and it seems are the problem of the property owner on whose land the fire pond resides.

When confronted about the private mortgage, Mr. Matt Brown made a powerful case for himself.  He said he spoke to two lawyers at New Hampshire’s Local Government Center who both were of the opinion, he said, and I summarize and somewhat enlarge, that a mortgage with fixed terms does not put Mr. Brown in a conflict because the fixed nature of the agreement protects Mr. Brown from fear of retribution.  Mr. Brown said the lawyers compared it to having a mortgage with TD Bank and then hearing an application for a TD branch in town.  No conflict exists.

Mr. Traeger, too, consulted legal counsel before the meeting, the town’s own legal counsel.  Her written opinion was that anything that would disqualify a prospective juror should also disqualify a board member from voting on a case.   Relationships have to be those of ordinary citizens and no more, which is her legally supported standard for judging conflicts of interest.

Unfortunately a frank exchange was cut short by Mr. Hans Nicolaisen’s motion to stop discussion.  This motion was seconded by Mr. Ed Mencis and after some more discussion, but not nearly enough, the board voted in favor of stopping the discussion. So, there is a difference of opinion on the board as to what constitutes a conflict of interest and it looks like it will not be resolved.  In due course, the board also voted to make Mr. Matt Brown an officer of the board, namely, secretary.  It was another split vote.  Obviously the members who voted for Matt Brown as secretary aren’t troubled by his private mortgage.

I, on the other hand, am.  Even if we knew the terms of the mortgage/promissory note, which we don’t,  how can we be sure renewal, extension and tolerance of late payments, should there ever be any, couldn’t be affected by an unfavorable vote on the board?

Mr. Brown is to be commended for volunteering his time to the town but his intelligence and generosity of spirit would be better spent on other bodies that don’t require him to vote on matters touching on Mr. Villella. He may be discharging his duties with a fair,  objective mind, but we just can’t know.  He should either recuse himself from votes when Mr. Villella’s interests are at stake, or he should resign.  If you don’t think this issue is worth raising your voice about, don’t complain about Washington.  We get the government we deserve.

Sadly this meeting was not televised or taped.  Watch the previous meeting:

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