Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Hubris in action in Purcellville

While traveling back to Virginia yesterday, I received an email from a citizen containing a letter from Mr. Eric Zimmerman, who was appointed to the Purcellville Board of Zoning Appeals Commission by a 5-2 vote on June 9, 2015 and is a local land use attorney:
The letter has no date or to who it was addressed to.  This letter was not circulated to the PurcellvilleTown Council, and apparently it was provided to Mary Ellen Stover's legal council. 

I voted against Mr. Zimmerman's appointment to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) because I knew of his business relationships with the applicant of Vineyard Square, which is the center of the BZA hearing appeal that begins tonight. During his interview with the Town Council, I asked Mr. Zimmerman outright about a potential conflict of interest and close relationship with developers. The following is a transcript of his answer to my question:  

Fair question, I get that a lot from people who are not in my profession, talks with young people.  “It’s that you train yourself to disassociate yourself with whatever your own personal feelings might be and look instead to the issue at hand.  I’m not sure who the party is that you’re talking about that I’ve represented that might be coming before the BZA… obviously if I’ve represented that party any time in the recent time, I would recuse myself.  I guess, you know, that’s one thing about the law: we go out of our way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  Even though we may feel like, I can get beyond that, we don’t even want to appear that there’s any kind of bias or prejudice on our part.  So I think that I can separate myself from, easily… and I’ll be candid with you, I’m not trying to brag or anything: I’ve represented an awful lot of people in this county.”  I grew up here, I know an awful lot of people, impossible not to greet them by their first name when they walk in the door, but “if I’m given the opportunity to serve the town again in this position, I know that I – I feel very strongly that I can do it in the right way.”

Mr. Zimmerman had an opportunity to inform the town council of his conflict of interest when specifically asked about it and he chose not to. As the trustee for the Vineyard Square property note holder, he and his client, who holds the note, stand to benefit the most from this property being financially successful. He misrepresented himself.  This letter likely resulted from the special mail delivery to homes by the Blue Ridge Leader informing residents of the upcoming BZA hearing regarding the zoning administrator's decision on the Certificate of Design Occupancy for Vineyard Square (hearing begins tonight at Town Hall, 7pm).    

I do not believe that simply allowing Mr. Zimmerman to resign as a trustee is enough to allow him to serve. The five Council members who voted him to the BZA board may have voted against him given this information.  Our town council was misled by him. In light of this, I feel justified in questioning his ethics and ability to be unbiased on the BZA. I believe the town council should be allowed to decide whether he continues to serve or not and that we convene to appoint alternates to serve ASAP.   

I sent an email to the entire Purcellville Town Council which included Mr. Zimmerman's email: 

To say I am disappointed and aghast that anyone is even considering allowing Mr. Zimmerman to continue on the BZA is an understatement.  The appearance of a conflict is enough,  and simply resigning in his position is not enough.  His appointment is solely to affect the outcome favorably for the applicant and we interviewed candidates who had no prejudice or conflict whatsoever and this is simply unacceptable,  and in my opinion, reflects poorly on our town,  staff,  and council.   

I received one written response of disagreement from a member of Council. 

I did not know this until today that BZA member Chip Paciulli recused himself from the BZA appeal hearing on June 19, 2015.**  Though his interest with the applicant may not qualify as a perceived conflict of interest, in an effort to not "confuse the process and detract from the primary issues before the town," he chose to do so.

The Virginia Conflict of Interest states that the appearance of a conflict is enough to present a conflict.  We owe it to our residents and everyone who comes before the town to represent them in the best way we can and with integrity. 

The BZA hearing between Mary Ellen Stover and the Town's Zoning Administrator is about whether or not the ordinances of the Town are being followed and who exactly enforces certain aspects of our ordinance.  This hearing does not "stop" the project or take away the zoning for the project.  

All along I have said that our town government should be equitable in how it administers decisions and conducts the business of the people. Above all else, we should remove any appearance of special treatment to any individual resident, business, or applicant before the town.  

**UPDATE: July 2, 2015:  At the BZA hearing last night, both Zimmerman and Paciulli discussed their potential conflicts and how they were resolved and/or eliminated.  I am disappointed that Mr. Zimmerman will be allowed to serve on this board.  I feel strongly that he knew of his interests when he interviewed for the BZA position and misled our Council.  One may assert that Mr. Zimmerman was not aware of the potential conflict.  Feigning ignorance bears the hallmark of dishonesty and I've always had a hard time of tolerating blatant duplicity.