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Ellis County Zoning: Anticipating the Opportunity for Personal Gain

By Paul Faber
News | November 20, 2009

HAYS, Kan. - The Ellis County Zoning and Planning Commission met in its monthly meeting on Wednesday, November 18.

The one piece of business discussed by the commission came from Commissioner Keith Campbell. Mr. Campbell proposed that the commission adopt a bylaw which said that when considering board business, if a commissioner "anticipated the opportunity" to personally benefit by the action of the board in the value of $1000 or more, that commissioner should publicly state that. Any recommendation then going forward from the zoning board to the Ellis County Commission would include the notification of the anticipation of opportunity.

Under current Kansas law the possibility of a future conflict of interest does not create a current conflict of interest. Thus, Mr. Campbell's proposal was an attempt to go beyond the state law and make the public more aware of the personal interests of commissioners in the matters they consider.

Although the motion died for lack of a second, there was about 20 minutes of discussion of the proposal. Other commissioners offered at least three lines of argument, each apparently intended to counter the proposal.

Mr. Kirk Dickenson said the proposal "could cut both ways." Mr. Gary Luea said it would be burdensome to adopt this bylaw since he anticipates an opportunity to personally benefit to a level of at least $1000 on the basis of each and every action taken by the commission. Mr. Paul Baier asked why the threshold should be $1000.

Commissioners also asked Mr. Bill Jeter, the county counselor, about the legal background to this proposal. Mr. Jeter pointed out that there are at least three sources of legal authority that are applicable here: state statute, common law (previous court decisions), and the Ellis County Planning and Zoning Commission's existing bylaws.

State statute sets procedures for dealing with situations in which a person has a conflict of interest, but it does not regard a future situation as creating a current conflict of interest. The most relevant past court decision, Anderson vs. Parsons, holds that even if there is not a conflict of interest, a member of a governmental commission has a legal obligation to ignore his or her self-interest and to make decisions in an effort to secure the welfare of the general public. The bylaws state that "a member shall automatically disqualify himself or herself from voting on any matter in which there might be a conflict of interest" (article III, paragraph 8).

Additionally, the "Ethical Principles of the Joint Planning Commission" states that the county desires to "avoid conflict of interest and even the appearance of impropriety."

Because of the avowed interest of some current and past members of the zoning commission in securing personal contracts with corporations seeking to put wind energy conversion systems in Ellis County, some members of the public were interested in greater transparency in the operation of the zoning board. They saw Mr. Campbell's proposal as an effort to improve that transparency.

Members of the Ellis County Planning and Zoning Commission who attended the November 18 meeting are Paul Baier, Keith Campbell, Kirk Dickenson, Dean Haselhorst, Richard Klaus, Kendall Krug, and Gary Luea. Bill Poland and Ken Richmeier are also members of the commission, though they were not in attendance.

A video record of the meeting is available on YouTube (in five parts, though the meeting only lasted about 25 minutes) below or by clicking here for part I of the video record.


1 Comment

Paul, this is a magnificent news piece. None of what you shared here could be discovered in any other way, had you not chosen to write about it. Even those Kansans (or Americans) that don't live in your county or fall under the jurisdiction of this particular zoning commission, will still learn by having the ringside seat you've offered us.

As they say, sunlight is the very best disinfectant.

Thank you so much for posting this. I learned from it and I know others will as well.


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