Durham County

Planning commissioner questioned about conflict of interest has new Durham client

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

A planning commissioner and attorney under fire from the Durham City Council came before some of its members again Wednesday.

Planning Commissioner Nil Ghosh spoke at the Joint City-County Planning Committee meeting at City Hall on behalf of residents of Forest Hills, who were applying for a neighborhood protection overlay. Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson and council members Charlie Reece and Mark-Anthony Middleton are on the committee.

Reece asked Ghosh if he was being paid to be there, and Ghosh said yes, he was there speaking as a Morningstar Law Group attorney representing the Forest Hills neighbors.

Reece and other council members criticized Ghosh in June when he represented a developer on a rezoning request for the Rollingdale townhouse project near Woodcroft that he had voted on as a planning commissioner in April. Ghosh maintained that he was not hired until after the planning commission vote.

“You didn’t see it as a conflict of interest?” council member DeDreana Freeman, a former planning commissioner, asked at the June meeting. “Advising the City Council on the case and representing the developer?”

Ghosh said no.

The council decided to continue the Rollingdale public hearing until after its summer recess. That recess is over, and the public hearing will be heard again on Monday, Aug. 6.

After that June meeting, City Attorney Patrick Baker started his own investigation into whether there was a conflict of interest, then referred it to the county because Ghosh is a county appointee. The Planning Department is a city-county department, and the Durham Planning Commission has both city and county appointees.

Ghosh’s three-year term on the advisory board was set to expire June 30, but County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said they are continuing it until they make a decision.

Planning Commission Chair Brian Buzby said Wednesday that Ghosh has always recused himself from any decision that could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

“I think he’s done a good job as a commissioner,” he said.

Buzby said the Forest Hills neighborhood protection overlay would come before the Planning Commission. Because Ghosh represented Forest Hills on Wednesday, “I would think Commissioner Ghosh would recuse himself [from future commission votes about Forest Hills],” Buzby said.

Ghosh has responded for comment through his law firm. Bill Brian, founding partner of Morningstar, has said:

“After looking into this matter in detail, we 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 the County ethics policy. Mr. Ghosh and all of the attorneys at Morningstar 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 as attorneys.”

In early July, County Manager Wendell Davis said he and County Attorney Lowell Siler would report to commissioners at the commissioners’ July 23 meeting. But at that meeting, commissioners made appointments for committees except for the Planning Commission.

Afterward Siler said he and Davis were still working on their report. And Jacobs said Ghosh was not the subject of a closed session earlier that night. She said the commissioners would “definitely” decide whether or not to reappoint Ghosh at a meeting in late August instead.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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