Stone questions credentials of some members, though open space advisors don’t see problems
Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone said he sees risks of conflict of interest among some members of the Open Space Advisory Committee. But committee members and other county officials, including its attorney, disagree.
Members of the Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee say they now are working to make sure the criteria they use to decide where open space taxes are spent will be objective enough to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
“The process to review applications will be objective and quantified,” said Ron Wolfe, a Avon town councilman who is the committee’s chairman. “I don’t see any conflict of interest. I do see some awkward moments, though.”
The 13 members of the Open Space Advisory Committee were appointed by the Eagle County commissioners in November. They will review preservation projects eligible for funding by the county’s $3 million open space tax, which was passed by voters in 2002. A 14th member has yet to be appointed by the town of Basalt.
For Stone, being both a member of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, a local, nonprofit conservation group, and a member of the Open Space committee poses a potential danger of “extreme undo bias” in the case where someone has prior knowledge of a project and votes on it.
Two members of the Land Trust’s board, Andy Wiessner of Vail and Tom Edwards of Gypsum, are also members of the Open Space Committee. Another member of both panels, Sandy Donnelly of Singletree, resigned from the Land Trust board on Jan. 23.
“I approved the committee, but protesting that I was concerned about the bias of people who sit on the Eagle Valley Land Trust board,” Stone said. “I didn’t want to vote no on the towns appointments.”
Stone said that comments attributed to him last week in the Vail Daily saying he didn’t think there was a conflict of interest were inaccurate. He also criticized another newspaper’s report that quoted him saying that there was a conflict of interest.
Eagle County Attorney Walter Mathews said state law defines conflict of interest as personal or financial gain. On Tuesday, Stone said he remains concerned about potential conflicts of interest surrounding conservation projects.
“Andy Wiessner’s business is developing land trades. It would be in his company’s best interest to support a land trade his company is involved in,” Stone said.
Wiessner works for the Western Land Group, a consulting company that helps people complete land exchanges with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. He said that would not interfere with his work on the Open Space committee.
“If there would be a situation that came before the advisory committee where the Western Land Group was involved, I would recuse myself from voting,” Wiessner said. “Colorado law is very clear. You can’t have a conflict if you excuse yourself from voting. I might also recuse myself if the Land Trust were the applicant and I felt that it were so involved in the projects that I couldn’t compare it to others fairly.”
Wiessner said he doesn’t plan to resign from the Land Trust’s board.
“The county attorney had said there’s no conflict of interest,” he said.
For Tom Edwards, being on both the Land Trust board and the Open Space committee isn’t a problem.
“The interest the Land Trust has in preserving land should be the same one the committee has,” he said.
County Commissioner Michael Gallagher said he supports all the members of the Open Space committee.
“It is diverse and active,” Gallagher said. “If a conflict of interest arises, I would trust that they would recuse themselves.”
Commissioner Arn Menconi said the Board of County Commissioners intentionally appointed people to the Open Space committee who have knowledge of conservation.
“Anyone who brings up the perception of conflict of interest has lost sight of the job of the advisory committee, which is to recommend the best parcel for open space tax money,” Menconi said.
Wolfe said having members of the Land Trust board on the committee is useful.
“The Land Trust board members are definitely an asset because of their experience and the knowledge that they can bring to the committee,” he said. “Eagle County taxpayers shouldn’t be concerned about members of the Eagle Valley Land Trust board also being part of the Open Space Advisory Committee.”
Wiessner, for example, has about 30 years of experience in land preservation and land management and he has been on the Land Trust board for 10 years.
“My whole life evolves around land conservation and protecting open space,” he said. “I also know a lot about government. This is my area of expertise.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.