Conflict of interest arose as a discussion point in interviews today with all three candidates for Whatcom County Planning Commission.
Geologist and lawyer Michael Bersch of Ferndale, title company officer Dean Prather of Blaine, and Ferndale City Clerk Sam Taylor seek to replace Ferndale-area farmer Walter Haugen, who resigned from the commission earlier this month after eight months.
Taylor, 30, is no stranger to the council, having covered it as a reporter for The Bellingham Herald from 2006 to 2011. (Full disclosure: I never worked with Taylor. He left the Herald in January 2011, and I came to the paper in December 2011. I was given the Ferndale beat upon my arrival because at the time I was the only reporter who didn’t know Taylor personally.)
On his application for the planning commission post, Taylor wrote in council members Carl Weimer, Sam Crawford and Barbara Brenner as references.
“Sam Crawford and Carl Weimer both said they were happy to do it,” Taylor said. But he said they went on to add, “I’m not ever going to guarantee I’m going to vote for you.”
Bersch, 63, has a different sort of connection to politics. His wife, Carol Bersch, is a first-year Ferndale City Council member.
Prather, 47, works for Chicago Title Company. He disclosed on his application that he does business with Whatcom County, conducting property searches and related work for the county.
That incidental connection aside, Prather answered a question about whether, as a title official, he would come into the planning commission to represent the interests of the real estate industry.
“Not at all. I have no political axes to grind. ... I am not here to represent anything but what I think are the best interests of the county,” he said.
“I don’t even do any work in the county,” Prather said of his title business. “99.9 percent of my work is in the San Juan Islands.”
Conflict of interest — more specifically, the appearance thereof — involving Carol Bersch became the subject of rancorous debate earlier this year on the Ferndale council. Carol Bersch had been asked to excuse herself from a legal strategy session between council members and the city attorney regarding lawsuits against the city by Art Rojsza, a friend of the Bersches. Bersch refused to leave that April meeting, so in June the council voted to give itself the authority to bar a council member from closed-door executive sessions if it was deemed to be in the city’s legal interest.
Michael Bersch was asked how he viewed the conflict-of-interest controversy involving his wife, and what his understanding of the issue would be on the planning commission.
“A friendship is not a conflict of interest,” Michael Bersch said. “Otherwise, no legislator could do anything.”
“I’m a member of two bar associations (Alabama and, as of this year, Washington) and two professional geological associations, and we have strict conflict of interest ethics,” Bersch said. “I’m somewhat sensitive about someone saying I have a conflict of interest. I know when I have a conflict of interest.”
Taylor, whose boss is Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen, could be perceived to represent the interests of Ferndale on the commission, which makes recommendations to the County Council on land-use decisions.
He said that in the unlikely circumstance where the planning commission was making a “quasi-judicial” decision related to Ferndale, he would probably recuse himself from the vote. In such cases, impartiality, even to the point of the mere appearance of a conflict of interest, is required by state law.
“Other than that, I am a citizen just like everybody else,” Taylor said. “I have the ability to volunteer my time on community advisory bodies.”
That said, Taylor went on to say, “If it was something directly about Ferndale, I would definitely recuse myself if attorneys told me to do that.”