Readers of this page will recognize that the newspaper has been fairly consistent, and insistent, that public officials should not be involved in issues in which they have a conflict of interest – or even a perceived conflict of interest.
In our view such potential conflicts of interest extend beyond the state law’s definition, which specifies that the conflict arises when a member stands to have a personal financial benefit.
We don’t allege that either council member in this week’s controversy stands to benefit financially.
But there is no question that Tuesday night’s discussion at theGraham city council was a travesty, stomping over fairness and equal treatment of Graham residents in order to do the bidding of one neighborhood – and two council members with a special interest in the topic.
The poet Robert Frost is credited with the adage that “good fences make good neighbors.”
In at least some residential areas of Graham, good parking etiquette might also help.
We don’t know why there’s a particular problem with parking and neighborly civility in one subdivision in Graham.
But the fact that two of five city council members reside in that particular subdivision looks suspiciously like one significant contributing factor to why the city has become obsessed with addressing the problem – if, indeed, there even is a problem deserving of a city ordinance remedy.
We’re not sure there is a real problem, but we’re certainly sure that the city council is on the wrong track in trying to “fix” it.
And we’re especially sure that it is entirely inappropriate for the two council members with such a direct stake in the outcome to be so actively, and aggressively, involved in the issue.
To make matters worse – in terms of the perceived conflicts of interest and internecine squabbling – the two council members, mayor pro tem Ricky Hall and council member Bonnie Whitaker, are not just residents of the previously referenced Valleyfield subdivision.
Whitaker is the president of the homeowners association of the development and Hall’s wife, Judy Hall, is the vice president.
So back in March, Judy Hall succeeded in getting onto the city council’s agenda, ostensibly to ask the council (on which her husband serves) to amend the city’s traffic ordinance to eliminate parking on the cul-de-sac on Pepperstone Drive.
Ironically, or perhaps by design, it just happened to be the same meeting night when Whitaker was sworn in as a new member of the council. Whitaker had been chosen by the council the previous month to finish out the remaining two year council term of Jennifer Talley, who had been elevated by voters the previous November to serve as mayor.
That night the council heard conflicting testimony by a targeted neighbor who disputed whether they, or any of their relatives living in the cul-de-sac, were responsible for the parking problems. Their parking was alleged to have contributed to problems for the city in getting trash and recycling trucks in the area, and to the school system, which was said to have problems with getting a specialized school bus to navigate that particular cul-de-sac to pick up a disabled child.
Now in most residential areas, neighbors would speak to one another if there’s a problem with a resident (or his/her children) parking too close, or otherwise inappropriately.
But in Valleyfield, the homeowners apparently prefer to go running to the homeowners association to demand some remedy.
But rather than having the homeowners association handle the problem(s), the association trundled off to the city council to try to get the whole weight of city government to force the recalcitrant homeowner to revise the parking for its occupants’ cars on this one, particular portion of one street.
“We’ve tried everything we can,” homeowners association vice president Judy Hall told the council in March in seeming exasperation.
Judy Hall said the association had communicated with residents through its periodic newsletter, emails, a Facebook page, and, she said, through one-on-one entreaties. However, that latter characterization was challenged by at least one neighbor in the audience in March.
Particularly noteworthy during the subsequent discussion, however, was that the targeted neighbor insisted that no one from the homeowners association had even attempted to raise an issue about any problem.
Brandy Moya, 2722 Pepperstone Drive, said there had been no one-on-one communication, no mailed notification, nothing specific to her or her house had ever been received, only generic “blasts” via email and Facebook.
Moya acknowledged that she has a family of nine, and that all drivers of age (seven, she elaborated) have a car. Some are in the garage, some in the driveway, and some, admittedly, on the street.
She also disputed whether there was any ongoing problem with access for a school bus picking up a disabled child who lives in the cul-de-sac.
To her credit, mayor Jennifer Talley first noted the potential conflict of interest back in March, and both Ricky Hall and Bonnie Whitaker immediately acknowledged their potential conflict of interest as Judy Hall approached the podium.
Both council members voluntarily initiated a request to be recused, and both were granted the recusal, taking their seats in the audience while Mrs. Hall carried the water for the homeowners association against the neighbor and seeking to get the city to impose a no-parking requirement on that one cul-de-sac at the end of one street, Pepperstone Drive.
Somehow, that one cul-de-sac, alone among all streets in the city, had a problem so serious that the city’s ordinance needed to be revised so that this one, particular cul-de-sac – the only one in the city – needed to have a ban on parking there.
(We guess the homeowners association doesn’t see a problem with residents from that cul-de-sac parking up the street in front of other neighbors’ houses.)
It seemed a rather severe remedy from the outset, but it gets worse.
Bonnie Whitaker and Ricky Hall both acknowledged their conflict of interest in March In March, Whitaker, to her credit, acknowledged that as the homeowners president, it was a “direct conflict” (her words) for her to be involved in the discussion and decision about the request being brought before the council (at her first meeting) by her vice president and that she did not feel comfortable participating.
Hall also asked, while his wife was waiting to speak at the podium, that he be recused, and the remaining three council members agreed to allow him to step away from the dais during the duration of the discussion about the Valleyfield parking fracas.
But, oh, what a difference a year makes.
No conflict this week?
This week, the subject of Valleyfield parking reappeared (without any previous notice to the public) on the council’s agenda.
Neither the mayor’s questions (twice) to the same two council members about the propriety of their participation, nor this publisher’s suggestions that the two should voluntarily step aside, was sufficiently persuasive to prompt either Whitaker or Hall to step away.
Instead, both now insisted that they could objectively consider the facts of the case involving a proposed limitation on parking on not just one, but two, cul-de-sacs in their neighborhood. They were absolutely oblivious to their bias, which they freely admitted ten months ago.
A motion from March, from councilman Bobby Chin, for the city to evaluate the situation on the cul-de-sac at the end of Pepperstone Drive had, somehow, mushroomed when the subject came up this week also to restrict parking on a second cul-de-sac, Pinecrest Court.
And before the night ended, a third, Greenview Drive, had been added to the list of cul-de-sacs within the Valleyfield subdivision that could potentially have restrictions imposed on parking on those streets by the city. The city council will take up the matter of all three streets at its next meeting, February 14.
Interestingly, by the way, the “evaluation” requested by the Chin motion in March resulted in a study summary given to council members recently, which showed about 50 episodes between April through July.
Now, we respect the comments of the city’s public works director, Burke Robertson, who told the council there are, in fact, three troublesome cul-de-sacs in Valleyfield, and three largely without complaints.
The main missing ingredient, however, in any assessment is what about all other streets and cul-de-sacs in the city?
Are only these three Valleyfield areas a problem for trash trucks?
And just how, after all these months, did this issue pop back onto the agenda?
Apparently, more complaints from the homeowners association.
The city’s recommendation under consideration this week was to prohibit parking between the hours of 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, excepting holidays and weekends – not quite the across-the-board, all-the-time prohibition sought by Judy Hall and the homeowners association in March.
Still, we have to question whether this controversy is really deserving of so much city council time and effort.
First of all, this is a ridiculous use of city council time and energy – to say nothing of the equally vacuous time spent by public works and the future waste of time for the city’s police officers who apparently will be called on to “do something” in the Valleyfield subdivision.
Second, precisely what good do the “do-gooders” think they will achieve, even if they succeed in persuading the city to establish no parking on any or all of these cul-de-sacs?
A $10 ticket from the police will be the penalty, and just like tickets given in any other area of the city, they are, in reality, little more than a courtesy. There is nothing police or other departments of the city do – and very little they can do – if a resident doesn’t pay a ticket.
But by then, the squabbling Valleyfield homeowners will have expanded their quarrel into taking time away from the police, who certainly have more important issues to deal with than issuing a meaningless parking ticket to anyone.
The targeting of one neighborhood should be troubling, however, beyond the conflicts of interest by the two residents who are also on the city council.
If the city can decide to target these one, two, or three cul-de-sacs, every other cul-de-sac across the city may feel the future sting of a city ordinance.
If the Valleyfield residents through their homeowners association actually believe they have a really serious problem, let them take their case, literally, to court.
Ah, but that would involve them spending their own money, rather than that of Graham taxpayers.
It would also entail rights for the aggrieved homeowner, requirements for notification, and a whole laundry list of protections under the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions.
But we have a cheaper idea.
How about going up to the door of the affected homeowner, or having a group meeting?
Not every neighborhood quarrel needs to be elevated into a city ordinance.
This one certainly doesn’t.