Last week, an article in The Forecaster suggested that Falmouth Town Councilor Fred Chase had a conflict of interest when he participated in a 4-3 vote to amend the town’s land use ordinance. The article implied that his participation in the vote cast a cloud not only on the proceedings but on any future development in Falmouth should someone choose to challenge the validity of the ordinance. It may be understandable that such a conclusion could be reached given the complexity of the law, but such an interpretation would be inaccurate, according to the town’s legal counsel.
Months prior to proposing the amendment that allowed property owners to keep a bit more of their land for development, Chase had disclosed on five or six occasions his intent to develop a parcel of his land. He purposefully submitted a plan to subdivide his property under the previous ordinance because he did not want his project to raise any contention of a conflict of interest. Despite his repeated clarity, some residents and councilors who opposed amending the ordinance raised questions about a conflict of interest on the night of the vote. They chose to question his integrity. Had he abstained from voting, the proposal would have been defeated by a 3-3 vote. A legal opinion from the town’s attorney was requested by opponents.
At considerable expense, a member of the town’s law firm rendered a lengthy written opinion regarding conditions under which a councilor might have a conflict. I asked the attorney to clarify his written opinion. This was his far more succinct response via e-mail: “Based upon what Fred believed to be the legal status of his subdivision application on Jan. 24 and his disclosure at that meeting, I don’t think that his vote gave rise to a conflict of interest. However, it turns out that Fred was wrong on the status (of his application) and that is why I suggested that he explain this at the next meeting and commit not to amend his application, i.e., not take advantage of the lower open space requirements. If Fred does this, I don’t see a conflict of interest.”
Chase complied, as suggested, by explaining for the umpteenth time that the change would not benefit his project which is, in fact, now proceeding under the more restrictive ordinance. His disclosure, according to the opinion, also satisfies the question of creating a perception of conflict.
With the advice of legal counsel we now know that Chase acted within his authority, that no conflict of interest exists, and that no uncertainty should remain regarding this ordinance amendment. Though some are displeased that landowners will be able to keep more of their property for development, the public process and ultimate disposition of the issue was well within the bounds of the council’s authority. In my opinion, there should be no cloud remaining over either Councilor Chase or the process that restored land to those who paid for it.
Tony Payne is chairman of the Falmouth Town Council.