Landfill opponent lawyer: Delay recusal vote

Chris Brook, a lawyer who represents landfill opponents, e-mails interim Greensboro City Attorney Tom Pollard, asking that he delay a vote on whether Vaughan should be recused from a decision to select a contractor to reopen the White Street Landfill until Sept. 20.

Full message after the jump:

I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me this afternoon. In the course of our conversation I understand that there is likely to be a motion made this evening by a council member to take a vote on whether Councilwoman Vaughan should vote on a proposed contract with Gate City to operate Phase III of the White Street Landfill. I also understand from our conversation that you are planning to allow such a vote to go forward and will permit all members of the City Council to participate in this vote. Such a motion is a drastic measure and I write to request you delay such a vote until September 20, 2011, when there has been ample time to review the legality of these decisions.

My first concern is that empowering members of the City Council to potentially overturn your legal determination that Councilwoman Vaughan must participate in a Gate City vote is legally unsupported. My research this afternoon has not yielded any statutory or case law support for City Councilmembers having the authority to conflict out one of their peers. NCGS 160A-75, the statute governing conflicts on elected bodies in our state, makes no such grant of authority.

My second concern is that empowering members of the City Council to vote on conflicting out their peers is unwise public policy. Votes on these issues are likely to be proxies not on whether there is an actual conflict, but instead votes on the underlying issue at stake. In the case of the current controversy, the vote would likely not be about whether Councilwoman Vaughan has a conflict of interest, but instead about Councilpersons’ feelings on the landfill. Further, requiring Councilpersons to vote on conflicting out a peer is not good for the Board’s future ability to work well together. Many Councilpersons voting tonight are likely to serve again with Councilwoman Vaughan in the future. This vote cannot help but have a corrosive impact on Council cohesion, rendering them less effective in their efforts to manage the business of Greensboro’s residents.

My final concern is that requiring Councilman Matheny to vote on whether to excuse Councilwoman Vaughan from voting on Gate City is contrary to prior decisions rendered by the Greensboro City Attorney’s office and places him in an untenable position. It was determined in May 2011 that Councilman Matheny had a conflict with Gate City, a position unchallenged until late last week. Councilman Matheny’s employer has a close business relationship with the principal players behind Gate City. If the City Attorney’s office will not require Councilman Matheny to vote on Gate City as a vendor, then why is he required to vote on whether Councilwoman Vaughan can vote? Given the close vote in this circumstance, requiring Councilman Matheny to vote on Councilwoman Vaughan is the equivalent of giving him a vote on Gate City as a vendor. In both instances, if he votes in a fashion that favors Gate City (or abstains from voting, thereby still producing an positive vote), then the public will view him as his acting based on his employer being close to Gate City. On the other hand, if he votes in a manner detrimental to Gate City, then the public will believe he voted defensively to avoid the appearance of impropriety. He can’t win under these circumstances. Councilman Matheny should not be placed in such an untenable position. The City Attorney’s office has determined he can’t vote on Gate City as vendor; it follows he should not be allowed to vote on anything relating to Gate City.

In light of the drastic measures requested, the apparent lack of statutory support for Councilpersons voting on their peers’ conflicts, the potential policy implications, and the conflicts facing Councilman Matheny should he be forced to vote, I ask you to delay consideration of any motion to excuse Councilwoman Vaughan until September 20. A week delay would allow further research to be done to ensure the correct answer is reached. A week delay would not upset the timing of considering Gate City as a vendor as additional, necessary votes are scheduled for the upcoming September 20th Council meeting. Getting this right now would serve all of the Council in the long-run.

Thank you for discussing this with me this afternoon and considering this request. My apologies on the late hour of this email. Alas, the recent nature of these developments precluded an earlier, more thorough reply.

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