Franklin Alderman Bob Scott recused himself from the vote on a special use permit for a Wal-Mart Supercenter this week after conducting an online survey on the issue. Town Attorney John Henning said he believed the survey compromised Scott’s impartiality, citing state statutes that govern the procedures for quasi-judicial public hearings.
The pertinent passage in G.S. 160A-388 says that “impermissible conflicts include, but are not limited to, a member having a fixed opinion prior to hearing the matter that is not susceptible to change.”
Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said determining whether Scott had compromised his impartiality was ultimately a judgment call.
“Are they really impartial? Have they fixed their opinion already? Have they been getting communications from one side or the other?” Hibbard said. “That’s where you would need to make your judgment, whether the actions fall into that category.”
Scott said his survey was an attempt to gain perspective on the public’s opinion.
“All I was trying to do before all this came up was just find out how people felt. I wasn’t trying to make a determination of whether it was a pro or con, I was trying to feel what the feeling of the public was,” Scott said.
Scott also questioned whether the other aldermen were impartial, adding that it seemed they all had their minds made up which way they were going to vote prior to the meeting.
He did confirm that he would have voted against granting the special use permit had he been allowed to vote.
“I am concerned. If we have this ordinance then allow variances because it is Wal-Mart, is that fair? Why do we have the ordinance if we are going to grant exceptions?” Scott said.
Scott’s public survey had 329 respondents. Over 75 percent of them were in favor of the Wal-Mart. Over 80 percent had a favorable opinion of the company. Perhaps the most interesting response to the survey showed that 40 percent of the respondents thought the public should have a say in the store’s design scheme.