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Is there a conflict of interest on the planning board against the proposed VSM campus?

OPINION COLUMN

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.”

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Comments

skangirl 1 year, 8 months ago

CPCS members probably would be outraged "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." There is, however, a difference between a public official trying to ensure that citizens' best interests are served and a public official aiding a private developer in pursuit of private interests (i.e., profits). There's a difference between being objective and being impartial. Our representatives in government are supposed to be objective, but they are also supposed to be partial toward the community they serve. That's why they are considered to be "representatives".

Mr. Southern could work harder to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interests, but we have to be realistic: In Skaneateles, each of us is only one or two "degrees of separation" from every other resident. Isn't it unrealistic to believe that someone can be 100% impartial when friends, neighbors and family are involved?

It should also be noted that Mr. Southern soundly chastised the anti-development contingent attending the zoning board hearing on the light variance. At that time, it appeared that he was on the developer's side.

It would be nice if people on both sides of this issue would stick to the facts, not attempt to obscure the facts, and attempt to be civil in the process.

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