Published On: Mon, Jun 16th, 2014

New Hope Borough Council president risks appearance of conflict of interest by not recusing herself from review of project next door

Proposed project site (foreground) and Dr. Shaw's property (background)

Proposed project site (foreground) and Claire Shaw’s property (background, fenced)

New Hope Borough Council President Claire Shaw would be well-advised to create some distance between herself and the borough’s review of the proposed four-story boutique conference center that investors want to build next to her property to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, say ethical experts.

Shaw disagrees: “I have no intention of recusing myself from the decisions on this project. The location of my property to the proposed site is not a conflict of interest and I find your suggestion that it may be, offensive.”

As previously reported, members of New Hope’s Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) were shocked at their June 3 meeting by Borough Council President Claire Shaw’s pronouncement that not only had their request to retain a structural engineer to assess the feasibility of preserving the former Odette’s restaurant been overruled, but also that “Council decided to handle this from this point forward.”

Getting a structural engineer to assess the cost of preserving the remaining portions of the historic 1784 structure is vital to HARB members because it lets them assess practicality of preservation efforts and their financial burden on the project applicant.

In response to questions by HARB members, Shaw asserted at the June HARB meeting that, ”We are not really getting a study, we’re having an open house…council will then decide if we want to request a formal structural report. Based on what we see and hear, the seven of us will decide what to do next.” Council and HARB members attended a tour of Odette’s last week organized by the applicants although HARB members had asked to delay the tour until they first reviewed a valid structural engineer’s report.

Under further questioning on June 3, Shaw explained, “I think this was sort of taken out of your hands because they [the applicants] were not treated very fairly at the first go around with this board.”

HARB member Dee Dee Bowman responded, “We simply stated that we did not think their report was adequate.”

“Because of what transpired, right or wrong, Council decided to handle this from this point forward,” said Shaw.

But what Shaw did not mention was that she had already received a verdict by an outside structural engineering consultant indicating that the two previous structural reports contained “insufficient information to make an opinion” according to minutes of a May 13 meeting of Borough Council. At that meeting, Shaw mentioned she had received a decision from the engineering consultant that showed structural reports submitted by the applicant to be inadequate, and then initiated discussion of the planned tour or “walk-through” of the Odette’s property.

It is not clear whether HARB members were informed about the result of Shaw’s study, despite their continuing requests for a valid structural report. One HARB member who spoke on condition of anonymity because of their fear of retaliation indicated that they had never heard of it.

“What was taken out of ‘HARB’s hands’ was their request for an independent structural study. No advisory board has the authority to obligate or expend Borough funds. Only Council has that authority,” said Shaw.

“As I stated in a communication to Ian [Haight-Ashton] on April 25, 2014, ‘although I have been told HARB would like to ask questions of the engineer performing the analysis and offer direction on the structural study, this will now fall within Council’s jurisdiction. Of course, Council will share the structural study at the appropriate time.’ In my opinion, HARB was inappropriate in stating a demand for an independent study when, at that time, the previous studies completed by the applicant had not been provided to our engineer.”

But, of the three Borough Council members who responded to questions by the Free Press, all indicated they were not involved in any decision to take the review of the Odette’s proposal out of HARB’s hands. When queried whether he was asked about taking the Odette’s proposal away from HARB, Council Member Cliff Montgomery said, “I was never asked.” Montgomery also indicated he was not aware of any meeting or vote on the matter, and that he doesn’t think this matter should be taken out of HARB’s hands because they were “unfair” to the applicants.

Said Council Member Nick Gialias of the purported council decision to take over responsibility for Odette’s review from HARB mentioned by Shaw on June 3, “There was no meeting, no vote, and I wasn’t involved.”

Council Member Geri Delevich said, “I never agreed privately to anything in this regard. The question of an independent structural engineer was brought up at the May council meeting. I thought it was not an unreasonable request by HARB and it made sense to me.

“I think the more informed we can be, the better we can make a fair decision,” added Delevich. And despite Shaw’s assertion on June 3 that “council decided to handle this from this point forward,” Delevich said, “I am not aware that council has taken this over.”

Several colleges and universities with faculty specializing in political, philosophical, and organizational ethics were contacted to find out if they thought it’s a good idea for a public official to recuse themselves from consideration of project next door to their property to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Mark Cobb, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Bucks County Community College, said, “I do think it would be wise to recuse themselves, generally speaking.”

Bill Pezza teaches at Bucks County Community College’s Social & Behavioral Science Department, and his academic credentials include a fellowship at the Robert A. Taft Institute of Government. He said, “Generally, and without wishing to comment on the specifics of this situation, elected officials have no more or fewer rights than any other citizen and individual, and they’re elected to exercise judgment. Generally, there may be a legal reason not to recuse, however, the optics of it may dictate something different, and that’s ultimately up to the elected official and the judgment of taxpayers. The most important thing is that all of this is brought to the light of day, and that people can exercise their judgement with full exposure to the facts.”

James Abruzzo, Co-Director, Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School, said, “Public officials have a responsibility to every citizen to act in a disinterested manner. Inevitably,  a governing body must decide on a situation that could benefit one of its members.  In that case, there could be the appearance of a conflict of interest. I am not qualified to decide if something is illegal, but it could be construed as unethical.  The best solution is for the person involved to declare his conflict; to provide input into the situation if asked; but to then remove himself from the voting process. This not only removes the conflict, it removes the perception of a conflict.”

Linda K. Treviño is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and Director of the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State where she has been on the faculty since 1987. Her research and writing on the management of ethical conduct in organizations is widely published and recognized internationally.

She also agreed that not recusing oneself from consideration of a project next door to one’s property could prove problematic for a public official. “Generally speaking, at minimum, there is the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

 

 

 

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