Some question possible conflict of interest in Chowan County planning board appointment


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CHOWAN COUNTY — At two successive County Commission meetings (May 2 & May 16), the subject of Planning Board appointments was met with controversy – due mainly to the question of whether Commissioner Winborne could vote to reappoint his brother, Bobby Winborne, for another three year term.

County Attorney Lauren Womble indicated on May 2, that Commissioner Winborne might not be able to vote for his brother because a “familial relationship” association might exist which could cause him to not be impartial.

Then on May 16, Womble stated that she had researched the potential conflict of interest question with the NC School of Government who ruled that no conflict existed. She went on to suggest that Commissioner Winborne “could vote” and implied that he “should vote” on his brother’s appointment, whereupon, Commissioner Winborne nominated his brother and this motion was approved unanimously.

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Attempts to contact the appropriate personnel in the School of Government have not been successful, as they are working with the General Assembly while the legislature is in session.

Insiders familiar with the situation question the appointment, particularly in view of the Planning Board’s recent approvals of wind and solar energy projects in the county.

Heretofore, Bobby Winborne (the planning board appointment) has been a reliable vote for these projects, so his participation on the planning board has a lot to do with how these projects are voted on and whether the advisory board is truly doing the bidding of the Commissioners, or if they have the interest of the citizens of the county at heart.

In a recent article, we pointed out that the Planning Board had failed to use correct procedures according to the law, to the detriment of the county residents, when deciding to issue a Special Use Permit. Procedures were not properly followed, which require testimony to be taken during a quasi-judicial hearing process.

The Planning Board did not follow these procedures, as required by state statutes. However, when citizens who opposed the alternative energy projects broached concerns, the County invoked a 30-day statute of limitations to freeze out opposition.

It is quite interesting that the County Attorney ruled that there was no direct family connection between the Winborne brothers, especially when it is widely known that both brothers have a “trust” securing land that will probably be involved with the transmission lines or stations for the Apex Wind Project – a focus of much dispute over the last 12 months or longer.

The County Commissioners have relied upon the Planning Board to provide ‘cover’ for votes on these issues by elected officials — apparently intent to subvert the interests of Chowan County citizens who oppose these projects.

The Commissioners can simply say that the Planning Board ‘approved’ the solar project, for example, whereby the commissioners can keep their hands clean.

Regarding the Apex Industrial Wind Project, the County Commissioners have been steadfast in refusing to amend the county’s wind ordinance so that protections for public health and safety would be included. In fact, a citizen group provided 650 petition signatures, requesting strengthening of the ordinance – an effort ignored by elected officials.

In the most recent election, County Commissioner Winborne was not re-elected and will serve until the end of the present term. But clearly there is considerable tension between the Commissioners and citizens they are sworn to serve.

In fact, Emmett Winborne made a comment at the recent meeting about “all the turmoil that’s being created by just a few troublemakers” . . . “trying to sue us.”

County Commissioner Michener made a motion to excuse Emmett Winborne, from the May 2 meeting, but then there followed some further discussion, during which Womble (the attorney) stated that there was a “Discretionary Statute” dealing with family relationships and whether a member feels that he can be impartial.

Womble said at the time that she did not have the statute with her but that she would be happy to research and get back to the Commissioners, which prompted Michener to rescind his motion.

Also as previously reported, board Chairman Jeff Smith was ruled to have a financial conflict of interest in this matter, a fact that he has rejected all along. So as the tug-of-war continues between the County and its citizens, consider this: In “Timely and Important Matters” (typically, the last item on the agenda for a regular county commission meeting), Commissioner Winborne made a very agitated statement about one of the citizens, Ms. Dehart — stating that Dehart wished to sue the Commissioners (in reference to the Currituck County Commissioners) and their Planning Board, wherein the commissioners decided that all future quasi-judicial hearings would be considered by the Commissioners, not the Planning Board.