Durham County

Was rezoning vote a conflict of interest? Law firm says no. County to decide

Nil Ghosh is a member of the Durham City-County Planning Commission and a lawyer at Morningstar Law Group in Durham.
Nil Ghosh is a member of the Durham City-County Planning Commission and a lawyer at Morningstar Law Group in Durham. City of Durham

The law firm where a Durham planning commissioner works says there is "no legal or factual basis" to accuse him of a conflict of interest or ethical violation.

Some Durham City Council members raised the question after commissioner Nil Ghosh spoke during a June public hearing on behalf of a developer.

Ghosh, an attorney at Morningstar Law Group, has said he did not begin working for the developer until after a Planning Commission meeting in April, when he voted in favor of a rezoning for the Rollingdale townhouse project in South Durham. The commission is an advisory board that makes recommendations to the City Council and Durham County Board of Commissioners.

City Attorney Patrick Baker, who also had concerns, said after the council hearing that since Ghosh was appointed by the county commissioners, the county, rather than his office, could review the situation.

Instead of reappointing Ghosh to another three-year term, the county commissioners have postponed their vote until their July 23 meeting, Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said. His term was set to expire June 30, but he will remain on the commission until then.

"As a board we just asked the staff to look into it, look at our existing policies and make a recommendation," Jacobs said.

Jacobs said the only time she recalls removing someone from an advisory board was for attendance reasons.

County Manager Wendell Davis said he and County Attorney Lowell Siler will read through the county ethics policy and might have more questions. Davis said he hasn't talked with Ghosh.

"The boards and commissions are appointed by the commissioners," he said. "I don’t really have a dog in that fight ... those are political appointments."

'Citizens and attorneys'

Bill Brian, founding partner of Morningstar Law Group, said they have looked into the matter in detail and "have found no legal or factual basis for the allegation that Mr. Ghosh or this firm have a conflict of interest in this case. Additionally, we have found no basis to suggest that Mr. Ghosh has violated either the city or county ethics policy."

Brian, who was responding to questions on behalf of Ghosh, also said all the firm's lawyers "take their legal and ethical obligations very seriously when they serve on public boards, and they also view such service as being integral to the duties they owe their communities both as citizens and attorneys."

At least two of Ghosh's fellow commissioners also support him. Tom Miller described him as a "straight shooter." And Charles Gibbs sent the City Council a letter supporting him.

Ghosh and others have recused themselves "numerous times in previous proposals brought before us for review" any time that there might even be the appearance of a conflict, Gibbs said.

"This incident, I trust, is coincidental," he added.

Public perception

Council member Charlie Reece was the first to raise questions to Ghosh at the council meeting on June 18.

Reece said the problem is public perception.

"I don’t want anyone to think, to ever think, that you’re making a decision because you think maybe someone will hire you to do a job later on," Reece told Ghosh.

"I don’t think it's appropriate for members of the council to see you come up to the podium and having read your written comments from when you decided on the planning commission," Reece said.

Council member DeDreana Freeman, a former planning commissioner, also questioned Ghosh.

"You didn’t see it as a conflict of interest?" she asked. "Advising the City Council on the case and representing the developer?"

Ghosh replied no, that he was not hired until after the planning commission meeting.

Some residents of the Woodcroft neighborhood, which is near the proposed Rollingdale neighborhood they oppose, have complained about the situation.

Resident Keith Boudreau sent a letter to the City Council and planning department calling it a "blatant conflict of interest with regard to Mr. Nil Ghosh's representation of Envision homes."

Boudreau said that in the April planning commission meeting, he thought that Ghosh "comes off as a very motivated salesman, clearly not an impartial commissioner working for the good of our community."

The City Council postponed a decision on the Rollingdale rezoning until its first regular meeting after their summer recess, on Aug. 6.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-410=9-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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