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Ethics commission: Developers can serve on planning panel

Advisory opinion addresses questions that a watchdog group raised about developer Sassan Shaool

August 25, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • In this file photo, Sassan Shaool, president of Washco Developments, speaks about the details on a change to the Rosewood Village development plan, at a public hearing during a meeting of the Washington County Commissioners and the Washington County Planning Commission. The Washington County Ethics Commission has decided that a developer can be a fair, insightful county planning commission member, but must be mindful of potential conflicts. The non-binding, advisory opinion, publicly released on Aug. 19, addresses questions that Citizens for Protection of Washington County, a watchdog group, raised about Sassan Shaool.
Herald-Mail file photo

The Washington County Ethics Commission has decided that a developer can be a fair, insightful county planning commission member, but must be mindful of potential conflicts.

The non-binding, advisory opinion, publicly released on Aug. 19, addresses questions that Citizens for Protection of Washington County, a watchdog group, raised about developer Sassan Shaool.

Shaool was appointed to the Washington County Planning Commission in February.

In a June 30 letter to County Attorney John M. Martirano, CPWC asked the ethics commission to consider whether Shaool, as president of Washco Developments, had a conflict of interest that should keep him off the planning commission.

In its Aug. 18 opinion, the ethics commission wrote that "the occupation of a member of a commission does not, and should not, create a conflict of interest in and of itself."

The opinion reasoned that a developer can offer expertise in the planning process, just as anyone in a trade would have while serving on an oversight board in that field.

"The particularized knowledge of these individuals, earned from their industry experience and employment, is a necessary component of an engaged, educated board," the decision said.

The commission concluded that Shaool's employment shouldn't keep him off the planning commission.

"He is cautioned, however, that given his profile and the breadth of Washco's interests, that he must be ever vigilant to remain free from the entanglements prohibited" in the ethics ordinance and "should continue to recuse himself accordingly," the opinion said.

In an interview Wednesday, Shaool called the sentiment expressed in the opinion an "accurate" description of how someone with experience and knowledge in a field can benefit an oversight board.

However, James Laird, CPWC's president, said his group remains skeptical about having a developer on the planning commission.

Yet, because Shaool told some CPWC members this month that he'll be a good environmental steward and wouldn't go easy on developers, CPWC will root for the best, Laird said.

"We will be there and hope he does as well as he tells us that he will," Laird said.

He said that, for balance, CPWC will urge the Washington County Board of Commissioners to pick someone with an environmental or historic preservation background to fill the next planning commission vacancy.

The opinion notes that ethics commission member Allen Swope, who is also a CPWC member, did not participate in this case.

Last week, Martirano responded to CPWC's other question about whether Shaool is a Washington County resident, as is required to serve on the planning commission.

CPWC had alleged in its letter that Shaool testified at a 2005 zoning board meeting that he lived elsewhere and only stayed in Hagerstown when he had business here.

But CPWC confused Shaool with his cousin, David Shaool.

CPWC's claim that Sassan Shaool wasn't registered to vote in Maryland also turned out to be wrong.

In a letter to the editor, Laird apologized for the mistaken identity and explained how the group reached the incorrect conclusion about Shaool's voter registration.

Martirano responded to CPWC in an Aug. 11 letter, saying that Shaool's most recent tax return, his application to serve on the planning commission and his voter registration all show that he lives in the county.

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