Town officials discussing possible conflict of interest

During the past two months, Strasburg officials have been discussing a possible conflict of interest concerning town donations to the Strasburg Chamber of Commerce.

Councilman Seth Newman noted that he felt Councilman Rich Orndorff, as chamber president, had a conflict of interest regarding an $8,000 donation from the town to the chamber in the town budget for the 2016 fiscal year.

This donation was reallocated at last week’s meeting as a line item reading “Mayfest” that any organization able to sponsor Mayfest in 2016 can apply for and enter a memorandum of understanding with the town.

Newman said he was concerned about the donation because of Orndorff’s position as well as his relationship with the chamber’s executive director Angie Herman.

“There’s a perceived conflict of interest there and I think it’s a misappropriation of … taxpayer funds,” Newman said.

Orndorff said, “If the council donates to the chamber and the chamber executive director is in my household, there is no direct conflict, there is no ethical violation.”

Orndorff explained that he “left the room” when Herman was being discussed by the chamber board for the position of executive director.

“The Strasburg Chamber of Commerce and I went to great lengths to ensure that there was no impropriety,” Orndorff said.

Town Mayor Tim Taylor noted that he and acting town manager Jay McKinley approached the town’s attorney, Nathan Miller, regarding any legal conflict in this case.

“We found out that there is not, according to Mr. Miller, but obviously there can be perceptions of conflict of interest,” Taylor said.

Taylor added, “One thing you find, of course, in small towns is sometimes you will have council members that will be on boards.”

At the moment, the town does not have guidelines in its code of conduct addressing potential conflicts of interest. Taylor noted that conflicts can be “personal perceptions” and are “kind of tough to regulate.”

Councilman Donald Le Vine said he thought the best best way to handle it is for each council member to announce to the council and in public any potential conflicts with organizations that are negotiating with the town for donations or funds.

Le Vine added that council members should “recuse themselves from discussion” regarding any funding those organizations might receive from the town.

Moving forward, Taylor said he will be taking a look at the town’s code of conduct and will “look at trying to add some verbiage to that to put in there what legally constitutes a conflict of interest.”

In addition, council will be discussing how to approach the publicly released minutes from each of its meetings. Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to postpone the approval of the minutes from the April 12 meeting.

Taylor noted that he thought Tuesday’s meeting showed that different council members feel differently regarding what the minutes represent.

Newman said that he does not think anything should be omitted from the minutes. “When people say things, that’s what should be record. They should be accountable for everything.”

Le Vine stated, “I don’t know what the answer is … but I think it should be discussed.”

In addition, Le Vine said, “Transparency is absolutely imperative for the functioning and trust for town council,” but that certain topics “should remain private.”

On the June 1 work session, Orndorff said, “Here is where I feel like council wastes time, meets and discusses things to death.

“We are actually going to meet and discuss minutes at a work session when we should be spending our time worrying about more important things.”

On Tuesday night, Miller cautioned that the council should “be careful to not be too inclusive” with respect to its minutes.

Miller explained that differences of opinion “that become emotional” can be a problem in a situation of litigation because “it allows the opposing party … to be able to extract personalities out.

“The minutes have to be properly reflective of what the councilor’s actions are, but they don’t have to report everything [in] detail or disagreement.”

The upcoming work session, Taylor said, “Is an opportunity for us to look at how we do minutes and decide as council what we want those to reflect.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com