News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 27, 2012

EDITORIAL: Navigating the conflicts

As Cobblestone dispute shows, ethical issues really do matter

Terre Haute Tribune-Star

---- — For months, the Vigo County commissioners took a mostly hands-off approach to the conflict that pitted homeowners in the Woodgate subdivision with the Area Plan Commission and developers at Cobblestone Crossings south of Terre Haute.

Meanwhile, the homeowners seemed to be getting nowhere with their complaints about the zoning process and efforts to convince Cobblestone to erect a large masonry wall to separate their new apartment buildings from the subdivision.

But then the tide shifted. What it took to convince the commissioners to get more aggressively involved was the revelation that a member of Plan Commission, Norm Froderman, may have committed an ethical breach because he held a financial stake in Cobblestone when he was voting for zoning changes requested by the project developer.

Following the revelation, the commissioners called for the Plan Commission to issue a stop-work order that effectively rezoned the property to a previous status, ensuring that Cobblestone would have to come back for new zoning hearings before it could resume work.

Cobblestone apparently reached an agreement with its Woodgate neighbors this week to construct the masonry wall. That led commissioners on Tuesday to lift the stop-work order.

The dispute between Woodgate, Cobblestone and involving the Area Plan Commission was complex. But the conflict-of-interest matter involving Froderman is simple.

Vigo County’s conflict-of-interest rules are clear that commission members with a financial stake in projects up for votes concerning zoning or other issues should not participate.

The commissioners were right to treat it as a serious matter and intervene in a meaningful way. There is little doubt where the commissioners stand.

It would be prudent, however, for the Plan Commission as a whole to make clear its commitment to ethics and avoiding conflicts in the future. It should be noted that Froderman, a real estate professional, claims that his financial interest in Cobblestone was indirect and insignificant. He seemed to imply that this matter was no big deal.

The rest of the Commission should move to distance themselves from Froderman’s position. It was a big deal, and Plan Commission members should acknowledge that, just as the county commissioners have.

As we have stated before, conflicts of interest, or even perceptions of them, have the ability to damage public confidence in public entities. They should not be judged lightly.