Elected and appointed officials involved in land use decision-making must not be tainted with prejudice when deciding on matters that come before them. Such prejudice exists when the individual finds herself with a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest arises when a public servant is in the position of deciding between public duty and private interests. The three most common conflict of interest situations are (1) when the member is in a position to gain financially from the decision being rendered, (2) when the member is a relative of an interested party, or (3) the member is near, or next to, the property at issue.
The most obvious example of a financial conflict is when a land use decision-maker has an ownership interest in the property that is the subject of the requested action. A review of court cases from around the country reveals numerous other possible conflict situations:
- The decision-maker is in a business relationship with the applicant.
- The decision-maker is employed by a company that stands to gain from approval of the development proposal.
- The decision-maker owns property near the property in question.
- The member owns a business that would directly compete with the applicant’s business.
The tangle of familial relationships that can potentially give rise to conflict of interest questions is equally broad:
- The decision-maker’s spouse is the realtor working with the landowner.
- The decision-maker’s close relative lives near the property in question.
- The member’s nephew is an attorney with the firm representing the applicant.
A decision-maker who questions whether he is in a conflict of interest situation should ask for advice from the attorney representing his city or county. If a conflict of interest situation in fact exists the decision-maker must disqualify himself from the case. If a conflict of interest does not exist, it is the decision-maker’s duty to participate and vote, even if the situation may be uncomfortable because it involves a friend or associate.
Many communities, boards or commissions have adopted bylaws or policies that govern conflict, and some state codes require specific action to be taken where conflict of interest may exist. Care should be taken to follow any applicable standards in effect locally. While the advice to confer with legal counsel is always sound, some communities require that potential conflict of interest issues be declared and discussed at an open meeting, and a vote taken to determine if an actionable conflict is present. Again, local practice should be followed when applicable. In addition, many local and national planning organizations provide models and standards for resolving conflict of interest issues.
Gary D. Taylor, Iowa State University