Questions of conflict of interest in Ocean View

When it comes to public participation in a community, in many cases the same people are involved in multiple organizations. Such is the case in Ocean View, where town council members are also involved in other town groups. But some say this is a conflict of interest, leading last week to a formal request for an investigation.

The Ocean View Town Council passed a resolution Tuesday, July 8, to request the state’s Public Integrity Commission (PIC) make a decision on whether it is a conflict of interest for two councilmen to serve on other town organizations.

Councilman Bill Wichmann has been a member of the Citizen Auxiliary Patrol (CAP) since its inception. The town provides a $3,000 budget, meeting space and two cars for neighborhood-watch patrols. CAP is overseen by the police chief. He, as a result of recent changes to how the two roles are defined, is now responsible to the town manager, who acts at the direction of the town council.

Councilman Richard Nippes, meanwhile, is a member of the Ocean View Historical Society’s board. The historical society, which began as a town committee headed by Nippes and is now a separate non-profit group, also receives money from the town and will receive rent-free use of a town building to establish a historical museum.

These two councilmen are being put under the microscope now because their other positions may be considered by some to be in conflict with their council duties. The resolution passed by the council on July 8 seeks a definitive decision from an independent third party, said Councilman Roy Thomas.

The town manager is set to present at the August meeting a draft of the letter from the town to the Public Integrity Board, requesting a ruling on the two potential conflicts of interest. But the resolution will not be sent until later in August, while the town manager awaits further comments upon it from council members.

The day after the vote to draft that letter, recognizing it would be more than a month before it could be sent, Councilman Perry Mitchell decided to pen his own letter to the PIC, ahead of council action. Mitchell’s entire letter, which was also sent last week to the state’s attorney-general, was published at his request in the Coastal Point on Friday, July 11.

“Because the council delayed sending the conflict of issue to the Public Integrity Commission and wanted to debate the writing of a letter sent to the Public Integrity Commission at its next meeting, I decided to send my own letter to the Commission,” explained Mitchell. “Any Council member can do this and even a citizen can do this.”

Mitchell said he decided that there is a conflict of interest with Wichmann on the council and in CAP, but he said he was not as familiar with Councilman Nippes’ situation and thus did not yet file a complaint about the possible conflict on Nippes’ part. Nippes is not mentioned in Mitchell’s letter.

But Mitchell said he did not want the issue of Wichmann’s potential conflict of interest to be delayed any longer, so he forwarded his letter to the Public Integrity Commission and the Attorney General’s Office, stating regarding the latter that there may also be a concern of separation of powers.

“To permit a council member to vote on upcoming budget ordinances under a cloud of a conflict, I believe, was unconscionable. I wanted answers to this question as soon as possible, and before votes were taken on the finance issues,” said Mitchell.

Mayor Gordon Wood took issue this week with Mitchell sending the letter, emphasizing that the council had already voted to move forward on the issue and ask the Public Integrity Commission for an opinion.

But Wood said that decision could also give the town options. Wood said it may be possible to set up a special designation for those serving on multiple town organizations.

However, he complained that Mitchell’s action “upstages” the action already taken by the town.

“Mr. Mitchell, who voted for the resolution for review in August, upstaged the council,” said Wood. “It is amazing what we can accomplish if nobody cares who gets the credit.”

During the last council meeting, Wichmann voted on two issues pertaining to the public safety department, namely the changes in the building and the take-home vehicle policy for police officers.

Mitchell said he felt it was not right to continue to allow the question of conflict of interest to go unsettled.

“We don’t know how long the Commission will take to resolve this issue and so I thought it important to bring this issue before the Commission,” said Mitchell of his decision to send his letter one day after the council’s vote. “It is in the public interest to resolve this issue expeditiously and in a just manner.”

Wichmann pointed out this week that he had relinquished his position as officer-in-charge of the CAP when he was elected to the town council, in order to quiet such concerns.

He said the actions taken lately by the town council, pertaining to public safety, have only hurt the town and the police department. He said he wants to continue serving on the council in order to protect the citizens.

“This is a disgrace to the department,” said Wichmann, a former police commissioner in New Jersey. “I don’t know why he wants to do this, but I guess it’s his right,” he added of Mitchell.

Wichmann said he won’t withdraw from the council, even if his service in both groups is labeled a conflict of interest by the Public Integrity Commission. He said both he and Nippes have genuine interest and passion for their other positions within the town.

“If this is a conflict of interest, then where does it end?” asked Wichmann. He pointed to Mitchell’s role as a guest columnist on national political issues for the Coastal Point. “Is that a conflict? It will just go on forever. How does any of this make Ocean View a better place?”

Nippes said he supports the council’s decision to ask the Public Integrity Commission for guidance.

“I very strongly feel this is the right step,” said Nippes. “We are doing what we are doing for the good of Ocean View, but I don’t want to sit on something that could belittle the town. If it is a conflict, I will immediately resign. I would like a definitive explanation.”

The July 8 resolution passed 4-0, with Wichmann abstaining. It will be discussed again at the August meeting.