Letter: Ensure Qualified Appointments

Letter: Ensure Qualified Appointments

At the Dec. 3, 2013 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, at Supervisor Hyland's request, the prospective re-appointment of Elizabeth Martin to an at-large seat on the County Wetlands Board was deferred and letters sent to the BOS in opposition to her re-appointment (including from me) were referred to the County Attorney's Office so that they can investigate allegations in those letters concerning actions by the Wetlands Board and Ms. Martin, and report back to the Board of Supervisors.

The prospective re-appointment may very well be on the agenda of next Tuesday's Board of Supervisors’ meeting. The County Attorney's Office has only one client: the Board of Supervisors. Their investigation must not amount to a "white wash" of the important issues raised by the letters. I asked Supervisor Hyland to share the County Attorney's report with me. I have not heard back from him as to whether (1) the report was completed or (2) he will share it.

People who are not qualified by technical expertise, temperament, and the judgment to recognize and avoid appearances of impropriety and conflicts of interest should refrain from volunteering for boards, authorities, and commissions that require those attributes. If they volunteer, they should not be appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Period.

There is no question the Wetlands Board requires serious oversight and significant reform of its practices. At the September 2013 meeting of the Wetlands Board, in response to comments made by a witness, the chairman admitted that she lacks technical expertise. The stated purpose of the Wetlands Board is to "preserve and prevent the despoliation and destruction of wetlands within its jurisdiction while accommodating necessary economic development in a manner consistent with wetlands preservation." All too often the impression is that the "economic development" part isn't given the required deference.

At the September meeting, a hearing was conducted concerning alleged violations of the wetlands laws by a couple living on or near Little Hunting Creek. The Wetlands Board failed to ascertain the identity of the owner of the property fronting on the creek where the alleged transgressions had occurred, yet still heard the case and issued an order, even though that order could potentially require the couple involved to trespass on someone else's property if, in fact, they don't own that property. More egregiously, the Wetlands Board failed to ascertain if they even have jurisdiction over the property. The Wetlands Board's jurisdiction is strictly defined by land elevation. The Wetlands Board failed to conduct a survey to determine the elevation of the property in question and therefore could not possibly know if their jurisdiction extended to some or all of the property or, in fact, none of it.

At the hearing, I raised the ownership and jurisdiction issues and urged the Wetlands Board to defer any decision until they were able to ascertain the identity of the property owner and the elevations of the property. They ignored me.

At the beginning of the hearing, board members were asked if they had any "disclosures" to make. Elizabeth Martin was recognized and explained that she was friends with the property owners, that they had participated in volunteer community activities she had organized and which she appreciated, and that she couldn't imagine these property owners would commit an environmental transgression. Despite these disclosures, she didn't recuse herself. This is one of the many reasons why I have opposed Ms. Martin's re-appointment.

Improving the quality and performance of the Wetlands Board starts with appointing citizens to that board who have the requisite technical expertise, judgment, and ability to recognize conflicts and studiously avoid them. I am optimistic the County Attorney will make strong recommendations that will lead to improvements in the Wetlands Board, starting with those who populate it. The Board of Supervisors is ultimately responsible to voters when they make irresponsible appointments and allow a County Board to operate in an irresponsible manner.

H. Jay Spiegel

Mount Vernon