Nov 04, 2012 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
Last week I attended the Nov. 1 meeting of the Citizens to Preserve the Character of Skaneateles in which they began to mobilize and coordinate their efforts to oppose, and even kill, the proposed Victory Sports Medicine Campus project off Route 20 in the town. In my story (published online and in this week’s issue of the Press) I reported on the presence and public comments of Town Planning Board member Joseph Southern at that meeting, in which he was advising the CPCS on their opposition tactics. CPCS Executive Director Holland Gregg also told me that Southern was a member of the group.
Considering that the Town Planning Board is the designated lead agency on the multi-million-dollar VSM campus project and its decisions can make or break the project, is it not a conflict of interest that Southern, who has a vote and a say on all aspects of this project that come before the planning board, gave the CPCS advice on how to oppose the development?
Southern told attendees of the CPCS meeting that getting the project’s requested light variance killed by the Zoning Board of Appeals would cause a delay and necessary revision to the project plans and would be “hitting a good spot” against the project. He also advised the group that enough public opposition to the project could cause the planning board to rescind its previous negative declaration of environmental impacts, and even said he would personally “call it back” if the CPCS created enough opposition.
At another point in the meeting, Southern restrained himself from telling the group outright how to successfully oppose the project, and instead told them they could connect the dots to where he was about to go.
When I asked Southern if he felt his comments were inappropriate or a conflict of interest to his position on the planning board he said, “No not at all. I was just making an explanation of what the process is. I attend those meetings especially to share information they might be lacking in background. But in no instance would I ever attempt to influence a project or give any information leading them in any direction one way or the other.”
Southern also said there is no formal membership in the CPCS and therefore he is not a “member” of the group. He said he has attended numerous CPCS meetings in the past “because there’s lot of misinformation out there and I like to keep things clean and up front.” For example, he said that after the Nov. 1 CPCS meeting he spoke to a few residents about the proposed artificial turf field for the VSM campus. They did not understand the materials the turf was made from or the possible environmental impacts such turf could have, and he clarified for them the actual facts.
When I asked Southern a second time if he felt his comments were a conflict of interest, and I read him my report and his exact quotations from the meeting, he replied, “It could be construed that way I suppose. It’s just me as an individual. I’m on the [planning] board. If they have enough information to draw into question the decision we have made [on the SEQRA environmental assessment] I would request that it be reopened – just based on information that comes in after the fact.”
Southern seemed genuinely surprised when I first asked him if his “membership” in CPCS and his comments at the meeting were in conflict with his planning board responsibilities, and I have no intention to impugn his character, but to me this is a serious situation. Just because Southern is an appointed public official does not mean he is not also a resident and an individual, and I have no qualms with him attending CPCS meetings or even being considered a “member” of the organization. He has every right to do both things. Holly Gregg told me that Zoning Board of Appeals chair David Graham is also a “member” of CPCS – but Graham was not at the CPCS meeting and he certainly did not make any public comments advising the group on how to oppose a project in which he is directly involved. And therein lies the conflict of interest.
Since the town board appoints the members of the planning board, I asked two of them about this situation.
“On the face of it, I’d say this is a conflict of interest at worst, and at least it is certainly not appropriate,” said Town Councilor Steven McGlynn, who previously served on the Town Planning Board.
“This is no different than a planning board member advising the applicant on this. That’s out of line. He may have to abstain from future votes [on the VSM project].”
Town Supervisor Terri Roney declined to comment, but said she will be investigating the possibility that
Southern has a conflict of interest in regard to the VSM project.
If Southern had attended a meeting of the VSM development team and offered them similar comments/advice in private on how they could harness public opinion in support of their development, wouldn’t the CPCS members be outraged?
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.