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Planning boards fight conflict of interest

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — February 1, 2008 — If this were a perfect world, the folks on the planning and zoning boards in Sullivan County would be strangers to those on the other side of the table.
But Sullivan County isn’t Xanadu.
After a campaign that focused on ethical town government, the Town of Callicoon’s new supervisor, Linda Babicz, returned from supervisor training with a bit of news.
It seems the New York State’s Department of State – which oversees the New York State Ethics Commission – frowns on folks involved in real estate serving on town planning and zoning boards.
“It’s not an absolute no-no,” Babicz said. “But it’s not practical.”
The chances the members will face a case where they’ll have to recuse themselves are great, she noted.
Babicz has been spreading the word throughout Sullivan County.
Her fellow supervisors say this is nothing new.
But there’s not much they can do about it.
“It’s my personal feeling that it’s not a good idea,” said Delaware Supervisor Jim Scheutzow, whose town is the biggest “offender” with three real estate agents on its planning board.
Like Liberty, Delaware even has a real estate licensee in the chairman’s seat of its planning board.
“The catch here is that it’s hard to get people to serve,” Scheutzow noted. “It’s a tough thing.
“You have to do the best you can with the people who are willing to come in for nothing,” he continued. “I wish we could get more younger people to come on these boards.”
Fallsburg Supervisor Steve Levine said the county’s rural nature makes it that much harder to find volunteers who will never have a conflict with their duties.
“If you grow up in a community, of course you’re gonna have a lot of ties,” he said.
Asking people to act with integrity, to recuse themselves, is the best option, Levine said.
“Otherwise, nobody could serve on these boards.”
In his own town, there’s one person who dabbles in real estate on a board, and another who is technically a lawyer, but works for a modular home company, handling their real estate deals.
That only drives home Levine’s point – the ties extend beyond the technical title of real estate “agent” or “broker.”
According to Eamon Moynihan, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Local Government, the ethics commission has no blanket prohibition on a real estate licensee serving on a planning or zoning board.
“But obviously, doing so creates potential conflicts of interest,” he said. “Based on the law, licensees are expected to behave in a trustworthy manner.”
Kevin Graham, a partner in American Heritage Realty in Jeffersonville and recent appointee to the Town of Callicoon Zoning Board, said he looked into the legal ramifications of a conflict before he accepted the appointment by the town board last year.
If conflicts crop up, Graham said he’s ready to recuse himself.
If it becomes a frequent problem, Graham said he’d likely step down – as much for the town’s benefit as the simple fact that he needs to make a living in the area.
But Graham said his decision to accept the nomination was rooted in his desire to serve his community with his own skill set.
“It’s kind of nice to have someone who deals with land on the board,” Graham noted. “If someone has common sense – that’s what you need to make the best judgment for the town.
“I’m just going to give it a try,” he continued. “It’s hard to be in business in a small town and not be involved.”
The same holds true for nurses, teachers, farmers and dozens of other walks of life represented on planning and zoning boards across the county.
But there are also folks in the real estate business on planning and zoning boards in at least half a dozen towns in Sullivan County.
Rounding out the boards are architects, land surveyors, and contractors who all have knowledge of the planning and zoning process – and a chance to run into a business conflict.
With planning and zoning board members now required by the state to complete at least four hours of training each year, they should be better aware of the recusal process and what it entails.
“There is always the possibility someone will have a conflict,” Scheutzow admitted, “but our planning and zoning boards do a marvelous job.
“Sometimes you can’t win,” he continued. “Some people complain about everything.”

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