“A governing board member shall not vote on any legislative
decision regarding a development regulation adopted pursuant to this Chapter where the outcome of the matter being considered is reasonably likely to have a direct, substantial, and readily identifiable financial impact on the member. A governing board member shall not vote on any zoning amendment if the landowner of the property subject to a rezoning petition or the applicant for a text amendment is a person with whom the member has a close familial, business, or other associational relationship.” – N.C. General Statutes 160D-109(a) (Conflicts of Interest, Governing Board)
Graham mayor Jerry Peterman appears to us to have a blind spot – or, perhaps, it’s the opposite, a laser focus – when it comes to his concern about ethics among members of his city council.
For the second time this year – and the only two times we’ve ever seen or heard of the practice anywhere – Peterman has acted to block the participation in city council deliberations by one of his fellow council members, in both instances, Jennifer Talley, a council member elected in 2019.
Talley and her husband, Chuck, have extensive business interests throughout the downtown area and own a good number of business and residential properties both downtown and in other parts of Graham (and Gibsonville).
This week the council was scheduled to consider a rezoning of 3.5 acres along North Maple and West Market streets where a developer wants to put commercial development. The spokesman for the project, Jason Cox, wouldn’t identify any specifics about the desired or planned-for businesses that might occupy any of the seven lots.
Nonetheless, it seems that the Talleys own a lot, on North Maple Street, beside one of the lots requested for rezoning.
Talley notified the council of that fact, although she added that she did not consider it a conflict of interest to vote on the matter.
The mayor was swift and unyielding. Peterman said, “I actually would see that as a conflict,” he said, as he immediately moved to “recuse”, or remove, her from eligibility to deliberate or vote on the rezoning request.
In both this case and an earlier one in March – over an issue of allowing food trucks in the downtown – it was alleged (in March by council member Melody Wiggins and this week by mayor Peterman) that Talley had a conflict of interest so serious that she should be removed from eligibility to vote on the matter.
Please note, however, the language in the excerpt from the law printed above (which, by the way the mayor cited to us as his justification for wanting Talley recused): “where the outcome of the matter being considered is reasonably likely to have a direct, substantial, and readily identifiable financial impact on the member.” [emphasis added]
Where is the “direct, substantial, and readily identifiable financial impact” – or benefit, in laymen’s terms?
Certainly, none was presented; it was simply stated as though fact, without any evidence, or even any attempt at providing evidence, much less any “readily identifiable financial impact.”
Now, we must say we find the idea that the rest of the council is a bunch of ethical purists is laughable, indeed.
Mayor Peterman and council member Wiggins are both former (i.e., retired) city employees. But we cannot recall a time when either has asked to be recused from considering city matters related to their former departments – fire in the case of Peterman, recreation in the case of Wiggins.
Earlier this year, for instance, Peterman was the deciding vote to approve spending $225K for land that appraised at $146K to build a fire substation between Rogers Road and Moore Street.
The vote was 3-2; if Peterman had been disqualified, or disqualified himself from the vote, it wouldn’t have passed.
We’re not saying it shouldn’t have, but it seems to us that if the mayor is going to raise the ethical standards applicable to city council member Talley, he’s going to have to do so for himself and all other council members, as well.
Peterman’s newfound adherence to a standard of wanting to follow “even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” which he correctly points out has been this newspaper’s preferred standard, is (sort of) laudable, except that he’s never followed it heretofore.
We have frequently noted that while we devoutly wish that an “appearance” standard was the law in North Carolina, it is not; rather, there must be a direct financial benefit.
Instead, it seems to us that the mayor this week engaged in a petty retaliation toward Talley for reasons that we suspect lie, mostly, in her audacity to seek to replace him as mayor – and, possibly, the concurrent challenge to his anointed successor and frequent ally, mayor pro tem Chip Turner. (Turner avoided all of this week’s council shenanigans due to a stroke; we wish him a speedy recovery.)
Now, let us be clear. Talley is no saint when it comes to ethical issues. We’ve called her out during an earlier term, for instance, when she sat in a closed meeting on an issue for which she had previously recused herself as having a conflict of interest.
Recused means you’re not supposed to participate – at all. In the case of a closed meeting, not even to hear the discussion of the other council members.
More typically, Talley has taken steps to distance herself when real conflicts have emerged. Most recently, last month we think it was, her husband requested an easement for one of their properties. She properly, of her own volition, asked to be removed from the decision about the issue. Her recusal request was granted, as was the easement.
Frankly, it seems to us a somewhat encouraging sign that the council now has someone of such success that there are potential, and real, conflicts from which she’ll need to abstain.
But it seems to us this week’s was not one of them.
The mayor’s action was all the more unnecessary inasmuch as the council rejected the rezoning request on a 2-1 vote, which likely would have been 3-1 if Talley had participated. So it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
And if it was “the principle” involved, we’re still not quite sure what that “principle” was.
But here’s an old adage we’d suggest: what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.