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Newbury conflicted over zoning appointment
Newbury conflicted over zoning appointment
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
A question of ethics was raised when Newbury Township Trustees sat down Jan. 16 to perform the routine duty of appointing members to the township's two zoning boards.
Before the session was over, trustees and members of the audience were questioning whether it was proper for one trustee, Bill Skomrock Jr., to nominate his father, Bill Skomrock Sr., for one of the positions.
One of the audience members, Chris Yaecker, said in a letter to trustees that, while he respects both men and their contributions to the community, he had an uneasy feeling after the meeting.
"We are in the midst of an unprecedented period when the public's approval and trust of government is at an all-time low," Mr. Yaecker said.
"Public officials, from the White House to the town hall, need to conduct themselves above reproach. I know that Bill Skomrock and his father are good people, and I respect both of their contributions to Newbury Township. However, an act of nepotism cannot be tolerated or allowed to continue. The appointment of Bill Skomrock Sr. should be immediately vacated in order to rectify a wrong and restore the public trust."
On Saturday, trustees did that. Without the younger Mr. Skomrock's participation, they rescinded the original motion naming the elder Mr. Skomrock to the zoning board of appeals.
At the Jan. 16 meeting, Trustee David Snively originally nominated Ken Blair to the position. Mr. Blair, however, is the husband of Trustee Jan Blair, who, because of that relationship, did not second the nomination. With only Mr. Skomrock able to second the motion, Mr. Snively waited, but a second never came.
An uncomfortable silence in the room was broken by an audience member who said, "You can hear a mouse chewing cotton."
Then Mr. Skomrock campaigned for his father's appointment, saying he had served for approximately 27 years on the zoning board of appeals and was the most qualified to serve. He then nominated his father for the position. Mr. Snively seconded the motion, and the board voted unanimously to appoint the elder Mr. Skomrock to the position.
Although audience members questioned the appropriateness of his participation, Mr. Skomrock said he did nothing wrong, because he did not vote on the appointment.
That position, he said, was backed by an opinion from the Geauga County Prosecutor's Office.
Mr. Skomrock said Monday that he is an honest person who only was thinking of the best interests of the township. He said his father had more experience and was more qualified than the other candidates, and it would have been unfair to the township not to promote his candidacy. "Would I be doing justice by not bringing it up?" he asked.
He said there was no deal or anything improper, because it was not done behind closed doors. It was a public meeting in which he stated his position, he said.
Mr. Skomrock said neither he nor his father had anything to gain. The zoning board position pays $15 per meeting, around $200 a year.
Mr. Snively said the only other costs that might be associated with it would be travel expenses for zoning conferences.
Although Mr. Skomrock said he did nothing wrong because he did not vote, Mr. Yaecker said he researched state law and spoken with two staff attorneys with the Ohio Ethics Commission, the government agency whose job it is to oversee such matters.
Mr. Yaecker said that Ohio Revised Code section 2921.42(A)(1) prohibits a person from using the "authority or influence of" their position to secure a job for a family member. "Even if an official abstains from decisions, the law prohibits the official from discussing, recommending or otherwise using the prestige of her office, formally or informally, to get a family member a job," he said.
John Rawski, an adviser staff attorney with the state commission, said he is not permitted to speak on specific situations.
However, he pointed to two documents that he said would address such an issue. Those two documents deal with public officials whose family members are appointed to government positions.
One is a press release dated April 29, 2003, dealing with a Fairview Park City Council representative who had voted to appoint her husband to council.
"Ohio's conflict-of-interest laws prohibit public officials from authorizing or using their position in any fashion to hire or appoint a family member to a paid position," according to the release.
The second is an advisory opinion from the commission, dealing with a city councilman who was concerned about his participation in naming his wife to an unpaid position on the planning commission.
Mr. Rawski said the ethics commission historically only has differentiated between paid and unpaid position. He said it's irrelevant how much the pay is. "How much is how much?" he asked. "Where do you start?"
State law attempts to address when public officials should remove themselves from a situation.
"ORC 102.03(D) prohibits a public official from participating in any matter where the official would have an inherent conflict of interest, such that his objectivity and independence of judgment with regard to his official decisions and responsibilities could be impaired ... a public official or employee is prohibited by ORC 102.03 (D) from using the authority or influence of his position to secure anything of value for himself or for another party, if the relationship between the official and the other party is such that his objectivity and independence of judgement could be impaired with respect to matters which affect the interests of that party."
Mr. Skomrock said he believed what he was doing was the right thing, despite what some people may say. "I'm an honest individual," he said. "I'd never do anything to put the township in jeopardy."
But he said he will avoid giving people reason to question his integrity. "It won't happen again," he said.
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