A possible conflict of interest on the part of a Salt Lake City Planning Commission member who is also under contract with Salt Lake County to produce a canyon master plan may damage the plan's credibility, a county commissioner believes.
Planning consultant Ralph E. Becker says he doesn't think his dual role is a conflict of interest, but he's willing to give up his seat on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission if the position causes a problem for the county.The county gave $90,000 to Becker's Salt Lake consulting firm, Bear West, last year to help county planners formulate a master plan regulating future residential and commercial development in local canyons.
Becker accepted an appointment to the city Planning Commission in July, but county commissioners didn't learn of the appointment until last week. County Commission Chairman Bart Barker thinks Becker's roles as a city planning commissioner and consultant to the county are an obvious conflict of interest.
Barker is concerned that the integrity of the county's 18-month effort to put together a canyon master plan, and the credibility of the final plan itself, could be questioned if Becker retains both roles.
"Salt Lake City is just one of the interests that needs to be represented in the master plan," Barker said. "This is a serious problem because the timing is so bad. We're far into the process and we don't want to see our credibility questioned now."
Minutes of the Salt Lake City Council meeting at which Becker's appointment was confirmed show council members questioned him about potential conflicts of interest because of his county contract.
But Becker said he's surprised by the concern over his Planning Commission appointment. Before he was appointed, he was assured by county planners that accepting the part-time city position would not be a problem, he said.
"The Salt Lake City Planning Commission has no land-use jurisdiction out in areas of the county, like the canyons," Becker said. "There is no overlap of responsibilities. I just don't see the potential for a conflict of interest."
The city does have jurisdiction over canyon watersheds, however, and Becker previously did a watershed management plan for Salt Lake City under contract.
But Becker said that city contract was already completed - and county commissioners knew all about it - when the county contracted with him for the canyon master plan. In fact, his work on the watershed plan was one reason the county gave him the canyon master plan contract, Becker said.
However, Barker said he's concerned about the public perception of any conflict of interest - especially on this issue that has pitted environmentalists against the ski industry in a battle over the future of canyon development.
"This (master plan) is an emotional issue, and if a consultant working with the county as an objective third party in the process appears to be biased, our credibility and objectivity could be questioned," Barker said.
Becker agreed, but said he's been independent and professional throughout the canyon planning process, and he's never heard any possible concern until now.
"I'd be happy to discuss the matter with Commissioner Barker," Becker said. "If people really feel I'm compromising my ability to do a professional job on the canyon master plan, I'll step down from the Planning Commission, at least on an interim basis."
The first draft of the proposed canyon master plan is scheduled to go to a citizens advisory committee for review early next month, and public hearings on the preliminary proposal could begin later in October.
The County Commission hopes to adopt a final canyon master plan later this year.