News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 13, 2012

EDITORIAL: Conflicts at Cobblestone

Integrity, credibility of Plan Commission at stake

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The legal and public policy complexities surrounding the controversial new apartment building construction at Cobblestone Crossings and its impact on the adjacent Woodgate subdivision exploded into an even more urgent matter during last week’s meeting of the Area Plan Commission. That’s when it was revealed that a commission member may have a financial stake in the development and had cast votes and made motions related to it.

Plan Commission member Norm Froderman’s stunning acknowledgment that he is a shareholder in the company responsible for the development immediately diverted the ongoing dispute into a different arena. Vigo County’s conflict-of-interest rules seem clear that commission members with a financial stake in projects up for votes concerning zoning or other issues should not participate.

In recent months, the Vigo County commissioners have taken a hands-off approach on most items related to the Cobblestone-Woodgate dispute. But they have reacted swiftly and properly to this latest development by issuing a stop-work order at Cobblestone, effective today.

That allows the county time to sort out the conflict issue and make things right, although a settlement between Cobblestone and Woodgate representatives could also permit construction to continue.

In a prepared written statement to the Tribune-Star on Tuesday, Froderman, a real estate professional, claims his interest in the company was indirect and insignificant.

While it may be unclear exactly what Froderman’s stake was in the Cobblestone development, conflicts of interest, no matter how large or small, are serious matters for government officials.

The importance of this is underscored by county policy and practices concerning conflicts of interest. Officials say that commission members typically abstain from votes on which they have a potential conflict. There are even criminal statutes on the books in Indiana governing conflicts by government officials, although there is no indication Froderman’s potential conflict would rise to that level. That would be up to a prosecutor to decide.

Conflicts of interest, or even perceptions of them, have the ability to erode and damage public confidence in the integrity, credibility and performance of public entities. That’s why they matter.