Graham’s mayor Jerry Peterman took the unusual move of having a fellow council member removed from the dais during the consideration of one item on the council’s Tuesday night agenda.
Peterman insisted that council member Jennifer Talley, who is running to replace him in the November election, had a conflict of interest in deliberating on a rezoning request for property that adjoins one of her properties.
Talley raised the issue of her ownership at the outset of the meeting when the city clerk, Darcy Sperry, asked each council member if he or she had any conflicts of interest on that night’s agenda.
Talley said that while she did not consider that she had a conflict, she wanted to apprise the council of her ownership of property adjacent to one of the properties affected by the rezoning request.
But Peterman said, “I actually would see that as a conflict,” and he immediately moved to “recuse”, or remove, her from eligibility to deliberate or vote on the rezoning request.
Indeed, at one point the mayor tried to disqualify a second council member, Ricky Hall, saying that Hall worked for Talley. Hall insisted that he does not work for Talley, and Peterman dropped the effort.
But Peterman pressed the recusal for Talley, which was seconded by Melody Wiggins, a frequent antagonist of Talley’s. The council then voted 2-1 to force Talley’s recusal. Peterman also prohibited Talley from voting on the question of her required recusal, a position backed by the city attorney. Peterman and Wiggins voted for Peterman’s motion; Hall voted against. Mayor pro tem Chip Turner was absent, hospitalized with a minor stroke, according to an announcement Peterman had made at the outset of the evening. [See separate story.]
It was the second time in the past several months in which Peterman or Wiggins has pressed for Talley’s recusal over her objections.
In most local recusal situations, it is the council member who asks to be recused. Only in Graham in these two recent cases has another council member made the motion to require a colleague to be removed from voting on a matter on the agenda, in both cases aimed at Talley.
Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., present to cover the meeting for the newspaper, questioned the mayor’s legal rationale for insisting that Talley had a conflict. In particular, Boney asked whether Peterman had received legal guidance on his motion. Peterman said it was his decision to make.
Boney also asked how a rezoning for a different parcel of land could present a “direct financial benefit,” the standard of North Carolina’s law for conflicts of interest. But Peterman said he felt it would.
However, Peterman did ask city attorney Bob Ward, who is also a member of Burlington’s city council, who responded that the council itself had the option to decide whether Talley had a conflict of interest or not. “It’s a call of the city council,” Ward responded.
Talley also asked whether she could speak on the matter just as a private citizen, but Ward advised that she should not.
Boney also questioned whether the council was taking on an increasing frequency of trying to prevent Talley from participating in various decisions at their monthly meetings.
Peterman charged that Boney’s position was contrary to the publisher’s long-held and often-expressed view that public officials should avoid “even the appearance of the conflict of interest.” Peterman added, “You’ve used that opinion as a hammer on us.”
Boney said that while his personal opinion was that the “appearance” standard should be the standard in determining conflicts of interest, it is not, in fact, the current standard of North Carolina’s law, and that Talley’s participation did not violate the actual provisions of current state law.
Boney charged that the council is taking a different interpretation on conflicts for Talley than it had for other council members who were similarly situated with downtown business interests.
Later in the meeting, Talley, saying she been “ambushed” by the mayor’s move, asked that the council postpone the rezoning issue until she could consult with her own attorney and with the UNC School of Government about whether her “recusal” – removal from the discussion and decision-making – was warranted by state law.
Peterman allowed the spokesman for the project, Jason Cox, to consult with property owners who were not at the council meeting to ascertain whether they would consent to a postponement of the public hearing on the rezoning request.
The council handled other business while Cox stepped outside the meeting chambers to phone the property owners.
When he returned, Cox said that a majority of the property owners wanted to move forward at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Commercial description viewed as too vague
Cox said that seven lots totaling 3½ acres – four facing North Maple Street and three more on West Market Street – are being proposed for rezoning from residential to B-1, which is the commercial designation for the downtown business district.
Cox said that two of the properties that are in disrepair “and an eyesore to the neighborhood” and would be demolished.
Cox said that the rezoning to change the 3.5 acres along North Maple Street and West Market Street was the “first step in many, many steps.” He later illustrated that the rezoning is “letter A in an alphabet soup.”
But when Peterman pressed about what was actually contemplated to take the place of the houses, Cox responded that he did not yet know what, specifically, would replace the current houses.
Cox said surveys, engineering, marketing would need to take place. This is a two to five year project, Cox said.
Peterman highlighted some of the concerns from the planning board’s deliberations about two of the residences that have a historical significance.
John Lepri of 531 North Main Street, in the historic district, raised concerns about taking away the historic significance of some of the properties on Maple Street.
Peterman said he would be haunted by Banks Smith and Dan Horner, now-deceased owners of two of the properties, both of which were the focus of the historical interest.
After a brief public hearing, the three council members participating in the decision began their discussion with Hall saying he was opposed to the project.
“I think the historical preservation of these properties outweighs” the desire to have them rezoned, Hall summarized.
“There are two houses there that cannot be replaced,” Peterman said, in saying he agreed with Hall’s objection.
Hall made the motion to deny the rezoning request, which Peterman seconded. The vote was 2-1 in favor of denial, with Wiggins voting against it.
Peterman encouraged Cox to come back with “something that will keep the historic houses that you love also.”
Read our editorial page views on the ethics issues: https://alamancenews.com/goose-gander-and-graham/