Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ethics panel sees conflict of interest in parks board

The Denver Board of Ethics finds that James T. Allen of Denver Public Schools and Parks and Recreation Manager Lauri Dannemiller had a “minor” conflict of interest at the December meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board.  The board also concludes that “the infraction does not appear to have been malicious.”
Allen is the DPS appointee to the Parks Advisory Board and the DPS Director of Bond Construction.  He continued to sit at the Board table during discussions of removing designation from part of Hentzell Park Natural Area.  The conflict of interest complaint alleged that Dannemiller “aided and abetted” Allen’s action.  Many members of the public believe Allen played two roles in trying to influence the decision. 
The discussion involved Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s plan to give nine acres of Hentzell Park Natural Area to DPS for a building site.  The Parks Advisory Board voted 11-6 to retain the natural area designation.  Dannemiller later overturned that ruling and declared that the land could be de-designated.
Here is the text of the Board ruling on the conflict of interest complaint:
“The Ethics Board concludes that Mr. Allen complied with the primary requirements of Section 2-61(f) of the Code of Ethics by disclosing his interest and by abstaining from acting or voting thereon (see Section 2-52(b): “A person who abstains from a vote is not exercising direct official action”). Therefore the only remaining question is whether Mr. Allen attempted to influence the decisions of others under Section 2-61(f) by answering questions of Advisory Board members during the meeting. This third aspect of Section 2-61(f) is less clear and particularly difficult to apply in this case, where the Advisory Board member is the appointed representative of a third-party, DPS, under the Charter.
“Although Mr. Allen did not expressly comment on or give an opinion on the de-designation or speak on the motion to affirm the designation, the Ethics Board concludes that Mr. Allen’s comments about the design of the school and the need for the school were reasonably viewed by some Board members and by some opponents of the de-designation as crossing the line and becoming an indirect attempt to support the de-designation. Once Mr. Allen was allowed to answer questions, it was not possible to keep the school design issues separate from the de-designation and land swap questions. At the December meeting Mr. Allen became the implied spokesperson for the DPS positions on the de-designation since the other DPS representatives who spoke at the November meeting were not present.
“The Ethics Board finds and concludes that Mr. Allen’s responses to Board questions and his attempts to answer other questions were implied attempts to influence his fellow Board members in violation of Section 2-61(f) of the Code of Ethics, and resulted in an appearance of impropriety. However, the Board concludes that there is no reason for a public hearing. There was a violation but the violation was on balance a minor violation under Section 2-56(6)(c) of the Code. The reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:
● In relation to this Advisory Board, Mr. Allen has an interest in DPS matters only by virtue of his role as the appointed representative of DPS. He did not negotiate or propose the land exchange deal or the de-designation and did not have a personal financial interest in the land exchange. There were many presentations and written submissions by DPS spokespersons other than Mr. Allen.
            ● Mr. Allen’s answers to questions of Board members did not appear to have any actual impact on the Board’s vote, which was overwhelmingly against de-designation of the natural area.
● The complainant alleges that Mr. Allen’s “mere presence in the room” was an unfair attempt to influence other Board members; however, there is nothing in the Code requiring a Board member with a conflict to leave the room entirely.
● The complaint implies that a Board member should never be allowed to give a presentation to a Board of which he or she is a member; however, Section 2-61(a) (5) of the Code assumes that such situations will arise.
● The primary mission of the Parks Advisory Board is to represent diverse viewpoints and opinions of the community, and Mr. Allen’s position is unique; he is expressly appointed to represent the viewpoint of DPS. The Ethics Board’s ruling in this case is thus not a precedent for any other boards.
“With respect to the complaint concerning Lauri Dannemiller, the Board concludes that the same analysis can apply to this complaint, for the same reasons. Allowing Mr. Allen to answer questions on behalf of DPS, although apparently attempted by Ms. Dannemiller as a “compromise,” regrettably did not play out well, but this was not clearly predictable in advance. The Board adds that the infraction does not appear to have been malicious but was more a function of the heat of the meeting. The Board of Ethics recommends to Ms. Dannemiller and the Advisory Board that this type of “compromise” position, allowing the DPS Board member to abstain yet sit with the Board and answer questions for DPS, should not be attempted again in future.”
Ethics Board Chair Leslie Lawson signed the report.  Assistant City Attorney Helen Berkman, assigned to Denver International Airport, conducted the investigation.  (Berkman reports to the City Attorney who is appointed by Hancock.)  Ethics Board Staff Director Michael Henry did not participate in the investigation.  Henry has an affiliation with some of the neighborhood groups opposing the land swap.


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