Another great story by Dennis Yusko for the Times Union. This is on the problems of conflict of interest in government. Link To TU article
Growth sparks concerns about conflicts of interest in Saratoga County
Robust development hikes risk of conflict of interest for those on land-use panels
By Dennis Yusko
Published 7:48 pm, Saturday, January 23, 2016
Tom Lewis wears many hats.
He was a Stewart’s Shops real estate agent for 22 years, getting approvals from planning and zoning boards for the convenience store chain to build new stores.
During that time, Lewis was appointed to the Saratoga County Planning Board in 2003 and the Saratoga Springs Planning Board in 2011, which put him at times on both sides of the approval process.
Lewis also served as county treasurer for 17 years.
Last summer Lewis disclosed that Dave Trojanski was constructing a new home for him in Saratoga Springs, but he did not abstain from voting on city applications submitted by Trojanski Builders, which has merged with Bonacio Construction.
Lewis, 69, says he neither issued nor received favors for the home project and recuses himself from matters in which he has a financial stake.
“I try to follow the rules because it’s foolish not to,” said Lewis, who in 2013 became deputy chief of staff for state Sen. Kathleen Marchione, R-Halfmoon, earning $74,630 a year.
Critics say state laws are weak on the issue of public officials’ conflicts of interest. But as years of robust development reach the doors of residents in bustling Saratoga County, some want Lewis and other community planners to be held to higher standards when their personal or professional business intersects with their public duties.
In recent months, residents in the county’s largest towns have confronted planners over potential conflicts of interest and argued for stronger requirements that people abstain from votes.
“It’s come to a boiling point, a tipping point,” said Vince Aceto of Clifton Park, in describing battles over development in southern Saratoga County.
A former member of the Shenendehowa school board and Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library board, Aceto joined dozens of homeowners last fall in opposing a 4,800-square-foot child care center proposed near their homes off busy Route 146. He said conflicts arise because some members of the town’s volunteer land-use boards work in real estate and other commercial enterprises.
State law prohibits public officials from voting on issues in which they have a direct financial interest, though conflicts of interest also can be defined by local ethics boards and courts, said Mark Davies, a government ethics expert who co-chairs the Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee of the New York State Bar Association‘s Municipal Law Section.
He said a recusal is effectively equivalent to a “no” vote if it makes it impossible for those voting to get a majority. “You really shouldn’t recuse unless there’s a good reason. On the other hand, you should definitely recuse if you, your family or business is benefiting financially,” he said.
Serving on multiple land-use boards can be incompatible because members should not review their own decisions, Davies said. Ethics boards decide gray areas, such as the political activities of board members, so those with a declared conflict of interest should refrain from sitting with other board members during deliberations in order to prevent accusations of improper influence, he said.
As county Planning Board chairman, Lewis recused himself from voting 11 times on 10 projects between June and November, mostly on city projects he already had voted on as a city Planning Board member. “I never voted on the Stewart’s projects, but I do now,” he said.
Another member of the county Planning Board, Don McPherson, an associate principal and landscape architect for The LA Group, abstained 13 times on 11 referrals during six months. Edwin Vopelak, vice president of technical services and chief engineer at C.T. Male Associates, recused himself six times. Members who recuse themselves can remain at meetings and listen.
Lewis said requiring board members who’ve recused themselves to leave the room during deliberations goes too far. “I think it’s overkill,” he said. The county board does not have alternate members who can step in and replace members who withdraw from votes.
On Wednesday, more than 500 planners and elected officials from across the state are expected to attend the Saratoga County Planning and Zoning Conference 2016 in the Saratoga Springs City Center. The annual day of education sessions is one of the largest events of its kind in the state. Jason Kemper, the county planning director, said engineers, architects and builders provide valuable input into land-use decisions.
“When you have members on your board that work in full-time jobs that involve some part of the planning or zoning approval process, you are going to get recusals,” Kemper said. “It is up to municipalities to determine the frequency that the recusals happen and if those recusals are impacting the function of the board, especially if alternate members are not available.”
Lewis and his wife, Sandra, bought a 0.17-acre vacant parcel at 60 Franklin St. from Joseph Boff in September for $343,750. He hired SBDT Ventures (Sonny Bonacio and Dave Trojanski) to build the family’s home. Bonacio Construction hung a sign at the construction site, and in recent years, also built a home for Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman William Moore. Lewis said he didn’t need to recuse himself from reviewing applications submitted by Bonacio Construction and Trojanski Builders because he shared no financial interest with them from the home construction.
“I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong,” Lewis said.
A real estate appraiser and ZBA chairman, Moore purchased a lot at 75 S. Franklin St., for $70,000 from Christopher Cuccio in June 2014 and three months later hired Bonacio Construction to build him a home. Moore did not publicly reveal his business relationship with Bonacio, one of the region’s prominent builders, at meetings nor abstain from voting on applications requested by Bonacio after Moore’s home was completed in February.
Moore said last week that he’s built four homes in the city, and hired Bonacio for the one on South Franklin Street because the builder came in with the lowest bid. “I probably should have disclosed Sonny built my house, I’m not saying that’s unreasonable,” Moore said. “But I have a clear conscience. Anyone who has ever done business with me wouldn’t even question that.”
John Kaufmann of Saratoga Springs, a blogger who writes about politics, did question it. He argued that to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Lewis and Moore should have recused themselves from judging projects of builders they hired. He wrote that while the planners may not have broken laws or ethics rules, only they knew for certain if they were given special treatment from the builders. It was unfair of them, he said, to ask the public to simply trust them. “The city needs to establish a higher standard in its ethics requirements,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who owns a private consulting business, reappointed Moore to a seven-year term. She also announced she would recuse herself from voting on an expansion proposal submitted by Saratoga Hospital because she was in discussions with the hospital foundation to provide it private services. Yepsen said she reported the possible conflict to the city Ethics Board, which told her to refrain from voting. Accounts Commissioner John Franck also said he would not weigh-in on the hospital’s proposed 75,000-square-foot medical office building in a residential area, saying his accounting firm had worked with area homeowner associations, which oppose the project.
During the review of the child care center last fall in Clifton Park, opponents of the project focused on the fact that the town Planning Board’s vice chairman, real estate broker Joel Koval, was working as listing agent for the property. While Koval abstained from voting, he remained seated with the board. Aceto accused him of making facial grimaces, flipping his tie and chatting with other board members during a review of the project, which was recently approved. A discussion over Koval’s mere presence grew so heated, town leaders eventually asked him to leave the Town Hall room, a recusal policy the town intends to continue following.
“He has an unfair advantage because of his position and that’s not the way government is supposed to operate,” Aceto said of Koval. “He can recuse himself from a meeting, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have influence in what happens.”
But Koval, 55, said he serves on the board to help his community and because it runs in his family — his father served on the same board. Koval said he had no problem removing himself from votes in which he stands to gain financially, and never received anything in return for a vote.
“It can be frustrating because you’re there as a volunteer trying to do your best, and people see nefarious things,” Koval said.
In October, Koval’s brother, Thomas, who is an electrical contractor, was appointed to the Planning Board in neighboring Halfmoon. His appointment, board alternate Margaret Sautter said at the time, raised concerns over possible conflicts of interest, as Thomas Koval, 50, owns Koval Contracting and has gone before the board for permits in the past.
Conflicting roles and development have been issues in Halfmoon for years. Robert Chauvin simultaneously worked as attorney for both the town and Belmonte Builders for years. In 2013, prosecutors asked the state attorney general to investigate Chauvin’s business dealings in Halfmoon. That was prompted by a Times Union story that revealed Chauvin, while working as a town attorney for 25 years, allegedly concealed from the public his financial interests in numerous large residential development projects, including some with builder Peter Belmonte Jr., who purchased lots and built homes in Chauvin’s subdivisions.
Chauvin said he recused himself from all Belmonte projects. He became a state Supreme Court justice in 2012.