Leavitt Recused From Buckley Property Discussions; As A Neighbor, There’s A Potential Conflict Of Interest
CHATHAM – A split board of selectmen ruled last week that affordable housing trust board member Rick Leavitt should not take part in discussions about the development of the former Buckley property because he owns land next door.
“This is painful for me,” said select board member Mike Schell, a friend of Leavitt’s and chair of the trust board. “This is not an issue of politics or anything else. It’s legal.”
Board members recognized Leavitt’s history of involvement in town issues and his steady support of affordable and workforce housing initiatives, but said it is the responsibility of all board members to step away from discussions where there is a conflict of interest, as defined by state law.
“Neither I, my wife, nor family members have a direct, indirect or speculative financial interest in my neighbor Joe Buckley’s family property,” Leavitt said at last week’s board meeting. Schell said that, from a legal perspective, Leavitt’s interest is in his own property, not the former Buckley land.
The state ethics commission has opined that abutters to a property are presumed to have a conflict of interest in decisions related to that property. The affordable housing trust has been debating the number of housing units that can be accommodated by the town-owned Buckley land, with some arguing the need to maximize the housing density, and others — including Leavitt — urging moderation. The presumption is that a high-density housing development might harm property values in the neighborhood.
Leavitt said if he believed the development would devalue his land, “I would not have spoken publicly at town meeting in support of acquiring the property. And I also said at that town meeting that I was a direct abutter to the Buckley property, so you and everyone else in this community knew my presumed conflict of interest.”
“There is neither a conflict of interest nor the appearance of one. There is a conflict of opinion over development strategy” among trustees, he said. “You and our town are best served by ensuring there is a diversity of opinion on the trust board.”
Select board member Shareen Davis said Chatham is a small town, and for those who get involved in town governance, “there are going to be moments when it could be perceived that there is a conflict.” Davis and other board members have recused themselves from discussions in the past, recognizing that not doing so could open the entire board to criticism later, jeopardizing important initiatives.
“Nobody’s kicking Mr. Leavitt off a committee,” she added.
Town counsel Patrick Costello advised Leavitt that he could petition the select board for a waiver allowing him to take part in the Buckley discussions, and he would be allowed to do so if the board agreed that his conflict was unlikely to affect the integrity of his service.
“In my mind it’s very simple,” board member Jeffrey Dykens said. “He’s an abutter and there’s an appearance of a conflict. And I’m not going to vote for the waiver. That being said, I’m horribly conflicted about it.”
Board Chair Cory Metters said the situation is “really starting to frost me a little bit. This trust, it was supposed to be a great relationship with the select board and the community to move things forward,” he said. Instead, the debate over Leavitt’s conflict is contributing to a perceived power struggle between the board and the trust, Metters said. “A cloud’s growing on this process,” he said.
Metters said that while he hasn’t always agreed with Leavitt, he has been consistent in his support for housing over the years. There may be a conflict of interest, but Metters doesn’t believe it would keep Leavitt from working ethically. “If we’ve gone through the process of putting him on the committee, then I think we’ve expressed some trust in his ability to be impartial,” Metters said. He urged his colleagues not to get “mucked up in the politics” of the matter.
Resident Frank Messina said the select board knew about the potential conflict when they appointed Leavitt to the trust, so it’s curious that the matter has only just come up. The discussion leaves “a really bad taste in the mouth of myself and the members of the town that this is the situation that you’ve created here,” he said.
Resident Elaine Gibbs, who said she mostly disagrees with Leavitt, argued that he should be allowed to take part in discussions as a duly appointed member of the trust. “It suddenly came up because he felt 60 units was too much,” she said. “I think it’s ironic that it’s happening now,” she said.
Board member Dean Nicastro said he nominated Leavitt for membership in the trust “knowing his long-term advocacy for and commitment to housing in the town of Chatham,” but said he did so knowing that the trust will discuss various housing projects, not just the one at the Buckley land. “The best course of action is always voluntary recusal, and I would have preferred that to be the case here,” he said. From a legal perspective, the question is whether the conflict of interest is a substantial one. It is, Nicastro argued, “because property values are affected by what happens on a neighboring property.”
The select board voted 4-1, with Metters dissenting, not to grant the waiver that would have allowed Leavitt’s participation in the Buckley matter.
Nicastro said the decision is not about Leavitt’s character. Ironically, Nicastro said he shares Leavitt’s concerns about excessive density on the land, “and I hope we will have an opportunity as a select board to weigh in on that,” he said.
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