12/02/09 — Group questions commissioners' property ownership

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Group questions commissioners' property ownership

By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 2, 2009 12:15 PM

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Attorney Jared E. Hammett speaks to the Wayne County Citizens for Property Rights, who claim that Commissioner Jack Best and City Council Member Chuck Allen are improperly benefiting from their involvement in road projects.

An attorney representing a taxpayers group Tuesday morning accused Commissioner Jack Best and Goldsboro Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen of failing to disclose conflicts of interest and of using their influence to steer public transportation projects to their own gain.

The brunt of the comments appeared aimed at Best, who was asked to step down from his position.

Snow Hill attorney Jared E. Hammett, who is representing the group, Wayne County Citizens for Property Rights, did not specify what position he was talking about.

Nor did he say what routes the two men had influenced. Both Best and Allen are members of the Goldsboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) -- a long-range transportation planning group created by the federal government.

Best asked Hammett whom he was representing. Hammett responded that it was an "entity" that included numerous people. At Best's request, Hammett said he would inquire as to whether a membership list existed.

"You know we represent 116,000 people, and we want to know if you represent 10 percent of the crowd or one-tenth of one percent," Best said. "We would like to know who you represent."

"We are a group of concerned citizens that have come together to advocate for responsibility in government," Hammett said. "I believe that when individuals put their own peculiar interests in front of those of the public, it is a breach in trust. I think we would all agree that it would be improper for a person to use their position to further their own peculiar interest or to steer public projects to their own personal gain."

Hammett said he has come into possession of documents that demonstrate that situation has occurred in Wayne County.

"There are members of the various transportation committees that have what we would term conflicts of interest in the selection of routes of those public byways," he said. "Those individuals did not disclose the interest or make any effort to recuse themselves, but instead advocated particular routes knowing that those routes might benefit them financially."

There are situations where there could be "reasonable explanations" for that kind of interest or personal beneficial gain, he said.

"But I think it is incumbent and the responsibility to make that clear and put forth such a reasonable explanation," he said. "I think that at the very least the situation creates an appearance of impropriety and I think even an appearance of impropriety is impropriety. I think what we have here is a broken promise. I think that citizens of Wayne County deserve better."

Hammett did not cite any specific examples of property or any locations.

In response to questioning by Commissioner Steve Keen, Hammett said, "I don't think that we have any sort of documentation that says there was preferential treatment in those interests. We would wonder about that, but not make any specific statement claiming that."

Hammett said the group would call on county commissioners or all public servants to not only be forthcoming with that sort of information, but for those who have not done that in the past to do the "right thing to restore the public's trust."

"We call on Mr. Best to resign his position and to take himself out of that situation to do what he can to ensure that that public trust, that spirit of cynicism does not have a basis or a reason to exist," he said.

"I want to make a comment, which I don't think that I ought to, but I am going to," Best said. "First of all you need to get your facts right. I own a piece of property on William Street we bought in 2001 or 2002, 10 years after the (U.S. 70) bypass (route) was already dedicated.

"I do not have a conflict of interest at all. The only property I own is that. You need to get your facts straight. I do not appreciate you accusing me of having a conflict. I do not."

Best declined further comment following the meeting.

Hammett asked Best if he could respond.

"You accuse me of not having the facts straight," he said. "Maybe I wasn't clear enough, we are not just talking about property you own as an individual, but also as an entity in which you have a controlling interest."

The MPO has been a favorite target over the past year of some county residents as well as some Planning Board members, including Keen and Chris Cox.

Allen said in an interview after the meeting that he believes some of Tuesday's presentation was backlash from the unpopular Beston Road project and that he had seen a lot of "familiar faces" in the audience associated with the MPO and Beston Road controversies.

"What I personally believe is that somehow because I am on the MPO and because people see me as having some role in this that I have gotten in the middle of a feud between commissioners and Steve Keen and Chris Cox and somehow they are dragging me into the middle of it," Allen said. "They inferred we were getting rich off these roads."

Hammett said in an interview that he had never been involved with the MPO controversy and that he believes it is a separate issue from what he had spoken about.

The investigation has been under way for a "few months," he said, and its focus has been on property, including subdivisions, near the U.S. 70 and U.S. 117 bypass routes, he said. No locations were specified during his presentation.

He said the investigation is looking at the time immediately preceding the proposal of those routes, up to and including the time period in which they route were actually built. The group is not concerned about property purchased after the routes were selected and constructed, Hammett added.

The U.S. 117 Bypass route has not been constructed and a final route has not yet been dedicated.

In an interview, Hammett said the group was not targeting certain individuals. Asked if others had been looked at, Hammett said, "not at this point."

"I think those two individuals (Best and Allen) were obvious choices," he said.

He said he "imagines" the investigation would look at other members.

"It was a ridiculous statement," Allen said. "Even if we wanted to do it there are too many checks and balances in the system.

"DOT does listen to us, but where the roads go is controlled by somebody in Raleigh. It is controlled by environmental issues, right of way issues. It is bigger than us. First of all it was decided before any of us were on the MPO," he said. "It was done before any of the current members that I know of were even on the MPO. Who decided it was DOT in Raleigh? What the local influence was, I don't know. I wasn't on the MPO."

Allen said he owns no property as an individual or member of any entity on the new U.S. 70 Bypass corridor. He has sold property, a sand pit, that he owned on the proposed U.S. 117 South Bypass route.

Allen said he could not be certain, but that he feels sure he disclosed that he owned the property when the U.S. 117 Bypass was discussed.