As Beaufort County Council takes a breather from possibly buying 84 acres in Bluffton for $12 million, one of its members needs to reconsider her decision to participate in the voting and discussions on the property.
Council member Cynthia Bensch has a conflict of interest that should lead her to recuse herself from the county's deliberations to buy the Pepper Hall property, owned by Robert Graves.
The conflict: Her son is married to Graves' daughter.
Apparently she has been concerned enough about her relationship to the Graves family to seek an opinion from the S.C. Ethics Commission. The commission said it was not legally a conflict.
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The office wrote that the father of a daughter-in-law is outside the statutory definition of a "familial connection" under the ethics codes.
In our view, though it is not legally wrong, it is an obvious conflict. She should have recused herself from the beginning, rather than serve as one of the $12 million deal's strongest advocates. Her voting and discussing the matter taints the public's perception of the process.
Some council members and former county officials are questioning the purpose for buying the property. Some have said the price is too high. There's a concern as to what exactly the county would do with the property. There's also the potential for increased property taxes and a reduction in the county's borrowing capacity.
On top of that, former council members Steve Baer and Dot Gnann have publicly called out Bensch on her conflict.
And on April 28, when the matter came up for a second vote and it was tabled, Councilman Gerald Dawson had this to say to Bensch:
"It has bothered me from day one to know that your association through a family member to the property owner doesn't give you a sense of any improprieties or conflict of interest. That you argue adamantly for the sale of this property, that bothers me to no end. ... I think it sets a precedent for all of us to set those guidelines so we don't cast a shadow on council as a whole. I'm sad to say it, but that's what's happening."
We agree with Dawson. Just because something isn't against the law, that doesn't mean it's right.
The public expects its elected officials to hold themselves to a high standard and avoid any hint of impropriety.
She can follow the example of Councilman Tabor Vaux, who has recused himself from all discussion on Pepper Hall. A member of the law firm he works for represents Graves in the sale.
By recusing himself, Vaux avoids any legal or perceived improprieties with the deal.
During the discussion, another case of potential conflict of interest has been raised, for Councilman Jerry Stewart, who received a $1,000 donation from Pepper Hall owner Robert Graves in last summer's GOP primary for his re-election campaign.
Baer and Gnann were right to raise that matter so it could be aired publicly. Stewart, a strong supporter of the Graves property purchase, should have been more forthcoming about the donation during all of the public discussions about Pepper Hall.
In fact, all elected officials should be upfront about donations from those who will be directly affected by their votes. But in our minds, the donation to Stewart, which he acknowledged, does not approach the level of conflict shown by Bensch in voting for a deal that could benefit a family member.
On May 11, council is scheduled to revisit the Pepper Hall purchase and vote for a second time. If approved, a third vote and public hearing would follow on May 26.
The property on U.S. 278, along the Okatie River, is in a position to play an important role in the county's economic and environmental future.
Whatever the outcome of the council's vote, the process must be above reproach, and that currently is not the case.