Beaufort County Council members say one of their colleagues who also sits on the board of the Lowcountry Economic Network does not have a conflict of interest in deciding whether the county should buy a commerce park its economic-development partner can no longer afford.
Council is considering a $2.5 million purchase of the Beaufort Commerce Park. The Lowcountry Economic Network bought the park with a loan in 2006, but it can no longer afford the debt and has asked the county to buy the property.
The project has received two rounds of approval. A final vote has been delayed until April.
Councilman Jerry Stewart is chairman of the network's board of directors. In e-mails to council members and at a Feb. 14 council meeting, some called this a conflict of interest and asked Stewart to recuse himself from the vote.
But Stewart's fellow council members -- including those who oppose the project -- say there's no problem.
Councilman Brian Flewelling, who has voted against the purchase, said Stewart sits on the network board as the council's representative.
"He's there because we asked him to be there," Flewelling said.
Stewart is not paid by the board, nor did he pay to join.
"I certainly am not compensated," Stewart said. "There is no financial involvement whatsoever, other than my remuneration as a council member."
In addition, Stewart said he holds no interest in any of the banks that loaned the network money. He filed a disclosure with the S.C. State Ethics Commission last year, which does not list any property or business interests.
Stewart has been a member of the board for several years and was asked to be its chairman last year.
"Before doing that, I talked to County Council, legal counsel, as well as others, and was assured that there is no conflict," he said.
Since becoming chairman, Stewart said he has taken steps to eliminate even the perception of conflict of interest. When the network board has discussed the commerce park purchase, he has recused himself from the conversation. Once, he even left the meeting, "so there would be no misunderstanding," he said.Councilman Steve Baer, the most vocal opponent of the commerce park purchase, said Stewart's view of the project might be shaped by his role on the network board, but he does not think the dual membership is a problem.
Baer said it's natural that county council would have a voice in the network, because the county provides $270,000 to the network each year.
"If anything, we probably should have a stronger role in the network than we do," he said.
Flewelling said council members need to serve on several committees, and there are practical problems with requiring recusal for board membership alone.
"It would be difficult then for any councilman to participate in any outside organization," he said. "The chairman could use that as a weapon, basically, to negate somebody's vote. If the chairman didn't like my position on Rural and Critical Lands, he could put me on the Rural and Critical Lands Board and preclude me from voting."