Thursday, January 12, 2006

Interested in conflict

Who ever said small-town government is a yawner? A quick google search doesn't lead me to any immediate results, so onto the next question.

Who ever said government is a "ugly necessity"? Ah, that would be novelist and journalist Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who makes a pretty good observation.

So, government's ugly and necessary. And small-town government — i.e. what runs the show here in Stowe and most Vermont communities — is no exception. Further, it can at times be exciting, contentious and almost always a vehicle for a better society.

Which is why it's cool Stowe's having this debate about conflict of interest. The chairman of the development review board, Allan Coppock, sounded the horns last week after attending a meeting of the planning commission. He was stunned that a planning commissioner, Chuck Baraw, decided to participate in a discussion that would benefit him. Baraw owns one of the biggest hotels in town, the Stoweflake, and at the meeting he argued for changing zoning rules so more hotel rooms would be allowed in the Mountain Road area which happens to also contain his massive resort and spa.

Why, Coppock wondered aloud in a letter to the editor this week, didn't Baraw recuse himself from the discussion when he had a personal stake in the issue?

Whether or not a conflict of interest was allowed to slip by is open to debate. Baraw will tell you (he told me) that Coppock was making a mountain out of a molehill, because his resort can't get much bigger than it already is. Baraw just saw his involvement in the discussion as another viewpoint — in fact, the only such view from an active resort owner.

Coppock will tell you (he also told me) that he perceived a conflict of interest, and even if there's the PERCEPTION that town government isn't operating fairly and for the community, than something has to be done. It's worth noting that aside from the seven-member planning commission, there were only two other perceivers at the meeting — Coppock and our commission reporter Lisa McCormack.

So, when the dust settles on this issue (it already has in the minds of some, who think the whole thing was blown out of proportion) at least we will have had an important discussion in public. Town officials and citizens form government collectively, and without the participation of one or the other it ain't gonna work. Here's hoping the ensuing debate remains civil, and we walk away with a better understanding of each other and the roles we play in this community.

But that doesn't mean this whole back-and-forth needs to be a yawner. Conflict can be a good thing — when it's interesting.

— Scott Monroe

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