Durham County commissioners on Monday delayed the appointment of three members to the planning commission over questions raised about one member’s ties to a developer.
Nil Ghosh, who works as a real estate lawyer with Morningstar Law Group, is one of three county-appointments to the planning commission whose terms are expiring June 30. County commissioners were expected to vote on those reappointments Monday night, but never cast ballots. The Durham County Board of Commissioners and the Durham City Council each appoint half of the commission’s fourteen members.
This delay comes after a contentious city council meeting on June 18, when Ghosh was questioned by city council member Charlie Reece about a potential conflict of interest because Ghosh now represents a developer whose plans he recommended the City Council approve as a planning commissioner two months ago.
INDY Week was unable to reach Ghosh for comment.
At the June 18 meeting, Ghosh spoke in favor of a request from Envision Homes and Underfoot Engineering to rezone about six acres in the Woodcroft area for the construction of townhomes, known as the Rollingdale development.
Ghosh specified that the developer came to Morningstar Law Group seeking representation after the planning commission meeting in April.
“There was no opportunity to recuse myself at planning commission,” he said. “Per the rules of profession that govern attorneys there was no conflict of interest. There was no overlap.”
Neighboring residents, however, have been emailing city council members alleging Ghosh was hired earlier than he says.
“As a matter of record, we would like you to be aware that our group approached Mr. Bill Brian of Morningstar Law Group early in the application process to represent us, but we were told the firm had a conflict of interest. This was before the [Planning and Zoning] Commission public hearing in which Mr. Ghosh voted and spoke at length in favor of his client’s application,” the emails read.
The INDY has identified eighteen times that Ghosh has recused himself from cases in his three years on planning commission. In the same time period, all other members have recused themselves from four total cases.
Reece pointed out that while he doesn’t believe that Ghosh had any improper intent or motive, he is concerned about the public perception of a member of the planning commission representing developers in front of the city council.
“I don’t want anyone to think, to ever think, that you’re making a decision because you think maybe someone will hire you to do a job about that case later on,” he said.
At the city council meeting, council members voted to keep the public hearing on the Rollingdale project open until the issue was resolved, and to re-evaluate at the next meeting. However, because city council is beginning its summer recess, members will not meet again until August 6, pushing the project back nearly two months.
Because Ghosh was appointed to the planning commission by the county, any review of the case or disciplinary action would come from the county, not from the city council.
Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners told the INDY Monday night that no formal complaint had been filed against Ghosh, but that the Durham city attorney had emailed the county manager about his concerns. Asked why the vote to appoint planning commissioners was delayed, Jacobs said the county manager and county attorney “need time to do their due diligence,” to review the code of ethics for county officials and see if action needs to be taken.
The county code of ethics reads that “no County Official shall appear before or represent any private person, group, or Interest before any department, committee, or board of the county except in matters of purely civil or public concern.”
It goes on to say that “no County Official shall engage in, or accept private employment or render service for private interest, when such employment or service is incompatible with the proper discharge of his/her official duties with the county or would tend to impair his/her independent judgement or action in the performance of his/her official duties with the county.”