After delaying the reapproval of three planning commission members, the Hinesburg Selectboard gave them the OK. Unanimously.
On Dec. 18, the selectboard had voted to approve all of the reappointments to the town’s boards, commissions and committees - except the planning commission which had three members’ terms expiring - James Donegan, Barbara Forauer and John Kiedaisch.
The selectboard postponed the vote on the three reappointments and invited the planning commission, which was also meeting on this night, to a discussion of the town’s policy concerning conflict of interest and the appearance of conflict of interest.
“We really see this as an educational opportunity so not only the selectboard, or the planning commission, but all of our boards should be pretty aware of the policy on conflict of interest and also an opportunity to look at our policy on appointing boards and commissions and committees,” said Phil Pouech in introducing the discussion.
Selectboard member Tom Ayers said he didn’t think anyone should feel targeted, but he felt he needed to bring up the conversation “because of the correlation of members of the planning commission also being members or having ties to Responsible Growth Hinesburg at the time the new zoning rules were proposed, specifically the official map.” Ayers said for him the problem wasn’t planning commissioners having a connection to Responsible Growth Hinesburg, but with their not recusing themselves for certain votes. “I thought that Lot 15 or the Hannaford lot was one where those members who had ties with both should have recused themselves,” he said.
Small community, lots of connections
Town Administrator Renae Marshall said because Hinesburg is a small community, members of any board or committee are going to be making decisions on their neighbors, friends or church.
“This is for everyone to just keep that in mind and to keep the conflict of interest policy fresh in your mind, just like you would the open meeting law,” she said.
Pouech said he didn’t necessarily agree with Ayers because the policy talks about a personal benefit being an indication of conflict of interest. He doesn’t see a personal benefit in this situation. He said sometimes he has recused himself from selectboard votes concerning his church.
Selectboard member Jeff French said he had been on the planning commission when it had discussed conflict of interest in regard to the Hannaford project. He raised the issue at the selectboard’s last meeting in December, “because I know it’s come up a couple of times and I just wanted to bring it out and talk it through and get it out and let it go.”
He asked could people serve on a board who were members of a group: “For example, should I recuse myself tonight because we’re talking about the planning commission and I used to be a part of it?”
The murmured dissent indicated that most of those at the meeting thought that he should not recuse himself in this situation.
“I understand where you’re coming from, but I just think ... you’re going to have people who have opinions, who belong to groups and they bring that foresight into the planning commission,” French continued. “I get the perception, but I don’t think it was there. And that’s just my opinion.”
Was community heard?
Ayer said he was “echoing” what he’d heard in the community and at the selectboard. “I clearly heard through the 3 billion conversations we had about Lot 15 that the community wanted Lot 15 to remain as commercial space.” He said he was a little shocked that the planning commission’s most recent proposal for the town map still retained Lot 15 saying, “I felt like either the people weren’t heard or there was a conflict of some kind.”
Kiedaisch said he had recused himself from a planning commission vote when the issue of whether he had a conflict of interest was raised because his wife is a member of Responsible Growth Hinesburg.
He also questioned what someone should do who spouse is “involved with a citizen’s group outside the government acting on an issue that’s important to the entire town?”
And planning commissioner Marie Gardner confirmed that Kiedaisch had recused himself when she raised the issue. However, she said, Ayer was making a good point and that conflict of interest should be discussed at least once a year.
“I think that anyone who lives in the town and cares about the town, as we all do, has the best interests of the town,” said Catherine Goldsmith, who was in the audience.
Perception versus reality
Another audience member, Bob Thiefels, said, “To shut someone up or say that they can’t be on a commission because their vision differs from your vision, I think we’re getting into some really slippery areas here.”
He said there was an assumption that those who opposed Responsible Growth Hinesburg and what happened with Lot 15 are in the majority, but he thinks that at least half the town and maybe more supported it.
Also, from the audience, Mary Beth Bowman asked, “I question the word ‘perceived.’ How many people does it take to perceive? Is it 20? 40? Two?”
Gardner returned the conversation to the planning commission meeting where they’d discussed whether Kiedaisch had a conflict of interest: “Things worked the way they were supposed to. It was OK for me to say, ‘I think you might have a conflict, John.’ And then we worked it out. I think it worked perfectly.”
Ayer said, “I’m pretty well satisfied with the conversation we’ve had tonight.” Then he made a motion to reappoint Donegan, Forauer and Kiedaisch to the planning commission.
As Marshall pointed out, technically the three were not being ‘reappointed’ because of the lapse between the previous meeting in December and the new year. Maybe it would be better to say that their appointments were ‘renewed,’ but that term probably could have been applied to everyone at this meeting.
Aaron Kimball seconded the motion and the board voted for it unanimously.
Then almost 20 people who had attended the meeting for just the conflict of interest issue filed out, among them the members of the planning commission with the three members who had just been approved.
And they went upstairs in the Town Hall for their regularly scheduled meeting.