Opponents of a proposed gravel pit in Noblesville are mobilizing with protests and research. They’ve already got a catchy new slogan.
Opponents of a planned gravel pit in Noblesville say a member of the Plan Commission should have recused himself from a recent meeting because of a conflict of interest.
Though experts said there is no legal requirement that the member needed to abstain from voting, the dust-up has introduced another layer of skepticism and confusion into a controversial issue in which residents are questioning whether the government will seriously consider their best interest.
“This lack of transparency raises red flags for our group,” said Rachel Raymer, an organizer of the gravel pit opponents.
Rachael Raymer, organizer, holds a sign outside of city hall as residents protest the plans to build a gravel pit next to Potter’s Bridge Park in Noblesville, Ind. on Monday, October 19, 2020. (Photo: Colin Boyle/IndyStar)
Plan Commission member Scott Noel worked for Sagamore Ready Mix until July of this year, which is partly owned by Beaver Materials owner Chris Beaver. Beaver Materials is seeking to dig a gravel pit next to Potter’s Bridge Park, a process that will take 10 years, before it is made a lake and donated to the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Department.
Residents in several subdivisions near the proposed pit oppose the project because they fear noise and traffic from dump trucks, air and water pollution and a decrease in home values while the pit is being dug.
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The City Council will cast the deciding vote on whether the project is approved, and the Plan Commission considered its merits.
At a Nov. 16 Plan Commission meeting, Noel voted to advance the project to the council with a favorable recommendation, one of five board members to do so.
The project’s opponents, who have formed a group called “Don’t Leave it to Beaver,” contend Noel could not be trusted to stay neutral and should not have participated in the vote because of his past employment. The group sent a letter to Mayor Chris Jensen expressing their concern.
The project was eventually sent along without a recommendation.
“We believe because of his work history he could not remain truly impartial,” Raymer said, “and we believe he should have recused himself or should have disclosed that connection.”
Guided largely by the state law
The controversy highlights how frequently professional interests and government action overlap when public servants must decide on major programs and raises questions about how much transparency citizens should expect from those decision makers.
Indiana law requires elected and appointed members of government bodies to recuse themselves from proceedings or sign a conflict of interest statement if they stand to financially benefit from the outcome. As a result, city councilors and others regularly abstain from voting on items because of conflicts.
At the same meeting, board member Darren Peterson, who owns an architecture firm and is also a member of the Noblesville City Council, recused himself from consideration of a development project that was on the agenda.
Noel, who declined to comment to IndyStar, worked for Sagamore Ready Mix from 2006 until July of this year, according his LinkedIn page and Beaver, who was no sure exactly when Noel left.
City Attorney Michael Howard said he was aware of Noel’s previous employment with the company, but he didn’t need to recuse himself because he longer works there and said there is no ethical obligation to disclose that employment.
“It has to be a present pecuniary interest,” Howard said. “Basically, you’re going to make some money on the thing you are voting on.”
Additionally, Howard said, the plan commissions vote is non-binding and are only recommendations to the City Council, which will cast the deciding votes on approval.
Noel spoke briefly in favor of the project and noted that he was a member of the Noblesville Parks Board, which is not involved in the project, but didn’t disclose any ties to Beaver.
The panel voted three times before sending the proposal forward to the council. The first vote was a 5-5 deadlock to send it with an unfavorable recommendation, which Noel voted against. The second vote was 5-5 to send it with a favorable recommendation, which he voted for. And the third vote was 8-2 in favor of sending it with no recommendations, which Noel also voted for.
The city doesn’t have its own ethical code, so it is guided largely by the state law. The Plan Commission has its own rules and procedure that adhere to the state law.
It states a member should not vote if he “has a direct or indirect financial interest.”
“Furthermore, a member of the Plan Commission is disqualified and may not participate as a member of the Plan Commission in a hearing regarding a zoning decision, if the member is biased or prejudiced or otherwise unable to be impartial,” the rules and procedures state.
‘It causes the public to distrust’
Plan Commission Chairwoman Malinda Wilcox said she had confidence Noel offered an unbiased vote and it was not necessary for him to disclose his previous employment, though she was not aware of it.
“It is up to each member to determine if they should” recuse themselves. “I don’t see him having a financial gain or loss in this.”
She said members regularly recuse themselves from voting, using their own judgment to make the determination.
And Wilcox suggested it is unfair to cast aspersions on the intentions of board members who consider it an “honor” to serve on the commission.
“What I saw was a lot of people emotionally driven, not fact driven,” said Wilcox, “and because they didn’t win they want to pin it on others.”
Because Howard, the city attorney, also represents the Hamilton County Commission, he recused himself from participating — though he wasn’t required to. He said he adhered to the Indiana court rules of conduct, which advise that he should recuse himself even if there is an appearance of a conflict.
The county commission is not involved in the gravel pit project, but the Hamilton County parks department does have an interest. Rather than face allegations that he was too close to Hamilton County Government to remain impartial, Howard stepped aside from offering legal guidance during the hearing.
Julia Vaughn, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Indiana, said she thinks Noel should have disclosed his previous employment with Beaver “at a minimum.”
“And probably recused himself,” Vaughn said. “Five months removed is not a lot of time.”
Without full disclosure, Vaughn said the public loses faith in government.
“It causes the public to distrust,” she said, “and question the process and system.”
The City Council is scheduled to hear the proposal Dec. 8.
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