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Facing up to board conflicts

When you put a board of architects, engineers and business people together to hear the cases of architects, engineers and business people, it seems a situation ripe for conflicts of interest.

Architect Jim Graham, former chairman of the Development Code Adjustment Board, said friends and business acquaintances often appear before the board. Because he wouldn't gain financially, he doesn't have to excuse himself from the case.

But he has to play by the rules of the city code.

"I've turned down friends before," Graham said, "and yes, they aren't real happy about it."

When true conflicts of interest arise, members must excuse themselves.

Too many conflicts could mean that a member should resign, Mayor Rita Garvey said.

"We have a lot of good people who can serve, but it may not be the right time for them to serve," she said.

When conflicts occur, board members say, they don't feel any pressure to vote favorably for their fellow board member's case.

"Some people it seems to bother them when someone disqualifies themselves," former Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Board chairman Bill Schwob said. "But it doesn't happen that often and when it does, to me, it just doesn't bother me at all."

If someone did try to influence fellow board members, it might backfire on him or her, said Bill Murray, chairman of the Municipal Code Enforcement Board.

"If a person tried to do something like that," he said, "it would probably have a negative effect."

Conflicts haven't been a problem, Planning and Zoning chairman Ed Mazur said. "Just about everybody on P&Z has had a conflict. If you have a profession like me, you probably end up having more conflicts from time to time.

Mazur is president of King Engineering, which often handles cases that come up before Planning and Zoning.

For example, King Engineering represented Wal-Mart's application for rezoning a site on U.S. 19 at NE Coachman Road where the company wants to put a new store. Mazur had to declare a conflict and did not participate in discussions or vote.

King also does a lot of work for the city of Clearwater.

Environmental Advisory Committee member Mike Foley said he was uncomfortable when Mazur was serving on that board because King works with the city on so many projects. Foley feared that conflict of interest caused Mazur to not be as strong as he needed to be for environmental interests.

"Committee members should not be involved in major projects with the city," Foley wrote to the committee. "Mr. Mazur may be well intentioned, but is too close to projects reviewed by the committee."

Last fall, Mazur resigned from the Environmental Advisory Committee after the city hired King to work on the city's Stormwater and Watershed Management Master Plan.

He said Friday that he had offered to resign months earlier, telling the Environmental Advisory Committee that his company was going to ask to do the work. But the committee voted to keep him.

After the committee became more involved in the details of the contract between King and the city, the conflict of interest became more apparent and Mazur resigned.

Even though he does work for the city, Mazur said he as a board member has never felt pressured by officials to give them a favorable recommendation.

"They're not going to try to intimidate me into changing my opinion," he said. "They don't mind if I object. They want my opinion. They don't want a yes man."