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Conflicts of interest can prove troublesome

Potential conflicts of interest have been an issue for years on Clearwater's Community Development Board, a powerful board made up of citizen volunteers. The board rules on site plans and other issues pertaining to land development, sparing politicians on the City Council from that time-consuming and sometimes controversial business.

City law requires that the City Council appoint members of the Community Development Board from the fields of architecture, engineering, construction, planning, landscape architecture, land use law and real estate. The theory behind that design was that professionals from those fields have the expertise to understand and rule on the technical land development issues that come before the board. It is not an easy job.

The down side, perhaps not sufficiently contemplated in designing the board's membership, is that all of those people are employed in fields related to land development. They frequently are involved in some way with the very projects that come before them for approval. Board members have often had to leave the room because they have a conflict of interest and may not legally participate in the discussion or vote.

This week the board's chairman, former City Council member Ed Hooper, resigned because of such conflicts. It is good that he did so, but he should have stepped down long ago. His behavior, especially recently, not only had raised eyebrows around town but damaged the credibility of the board.

Hooper, a retired firefighter, was appointed several years ago. He was a capable member of the board, and as its current chairman did a good job running meetings.

Our problem with Hooper was that while a Community Development Board member, he grew a new career as a lobbyist for developers and other business people, benefiting from contacts and knowledge he gained on the board. And recently, he had shown a lack of sensitivity in handling conflicts.

For example, Hooper worked as a consultant for Tony Markopoulos as he tried to win city support for a resort on Clearwater Beach. Markopoulos and his team finally developed a site plan and took it before the Community Development Board for approval. Hooper recused himself from the discussion, as required.

Rather than leaving the room, though, he sat in the front of the auditorium, right under the noses of his colleagues on the board. While they discussed the project, their chairman sat in front of them, advising Markopoulos on how to win the case. When the vote came, it was 4-2 in favor of Markopoulos even though the city staff had argued strenuously against approval because the plan violated some tenets of Beach by Design, the city's redevelopment plan for the beach.

City officials and residents alike, who had been getting squeamish about Hooper's conflicts anyway, began saying after that meeting that he should resign. This week, Hooper did, also apologizing for his behavior at that recent meeting. Too bad the damage to Hooper and the board already was done.

The Hooper situation isn't the only one in city government giving people pause. There is another person in the city who should either get his appearance of conflicts under control or resign. City Council member Hoyt Hamilton has been angry about the city's decision to close the South Beach Pavilion, a concession on south Clearwater Beach that has been operated by his family for decades.

Hamilton should have recognized that it would be difficult for him to be objective on the subject and should have accepted his colleagues' decision. He should have left it to other members of his family to argue the family's position.

Instead, Hamilton has continued to fret and fume, complaining behind the scenes and making both city staffers and elected officials uncomfortable. The decision about the pavilion has been made. Hamilton is only hurting himself by refusing to close the door on the issue.