Durham County

Bull City Politics: Ex-commissioner suggests ethics questioned ‘for political gain’

Durham Planning Commissioner Nil Ghosh withdrew his name this month from the running for reappointment to the board. The Durham County Commissioners voted Monday night for other appointees, subsequently ending Ghosh’s term.
Durham Planning Commissioner Nil Ghosh withdrew his name this month from the running for reappointment to the board. The Durham County Commissioners voted Monday night for other appointees, subsequently ending Ghosh’s term.

Nil Ghosh, the attorney and Durham planning commissioner under fire from the City Council for a possible conflict of interest, is off the commission.

“Whether for political gain or actual concern, elected officials have called my ethics into question with regard to my public service as a planning commissioner and my private service as an attorney,” Ghosh told fellow planning commissioners at their Aug. 14 meeting.

He said he had withdrawn his name from being considered for reappointment to the advisory board.

Multiple members of the Durham City Council questioned Ghosh in June about his coming before them representing a townhouse developer when he had voted in favor of the project two months earlier as a planning commissioner.

“Are you in the habit of accepting cases you’ve already presided on?” asked City Council member DeDreana Freeman, who served on the planning commission before being elected to the council last year.

“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,” added council member Charlie Reece.

Ghosh works for Morningstar Law Group. He and his law firm maintain that there was no conflict of interest because he did not have the developer as a client when he made his recommendations as a planning commissioner in April.

City Attorney Patrick Baker referred it to County Attorney Lowell Siler because Ghosh is a county appointee. Siler and County Manager Wendell Davis were expected to report back in July so the commissioners could decide on Ghosh’s reappointment, but that report and the appointment were delayed.

In early August, when the same zoning case came back before the council, Baker announced that Siler and Davis had found no conflict of interest. Ghosh was at that council meeting but didn’t speak.

“It has been a stressful time for me, and I would never wish it upon any of you,” Ghosh told planning commissioners this month.

“The intersection of my work with that of the planning commission is tricky, to say the least, but recently I’ve noticed that my role on planning commission has caused my interactions with elected officials and my professional role as an attorney to become increasingly antagonistic,” he said. “At this time I think it will be best not only for me, but for the planning commission and the city and county of Durham for me to move on to a different role.”

He said he would serve until the commissioners appointed someone else. That happened Monday, when the county appointed three planning commissioners: Andre Vann, Nathaniel Baker and Armeer Kenchen.

Planning Commissioner Tom Miller said Tuesday that Ghosh’s withdrawal was unfortunate because the commission needs points of view from all sides of a debate and with professional planning experience.

“I don’t want a situation where you’re ineligible to serve on the Planning Commission because you know too much about its business,” Miller said. He thinks Ghosh added to the quality of debates.

Ghosh told the planning commissioners that he would likely see them again, this time from the podium speaking to the commission rather than on it.

Bull City Politics is an occasional Durham politics column by government reporter Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan. Follow her on Twitter @dawnbvaughan and the hashtag #BullCitypol.
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