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Deciding whether to rezone a piece of residential property for a new school in Galax was difficult already, and it is being further complicated by a question about perceived conflicts of interest.
Four of the seven members of the Galax Planning Commission have ties to the city’s school system: one is a school board member, one is an administrator, one is a teacher and one is married to a teacher. The commission is considering the school board’s request to rezone land for a new elementary/middle school.
School board member Dr. Jim Adams already has recused himself from voting, and his is the most direct conflict of interest. The other three school-affiliated commissioners have not.
After hearing concerns about these three commissioners voting on the issue, City Attorney Jim Cornwell offered his legal opinion that they do not have a conflict of interest in voting for or against the zoning request.
According to Virginia law, Cornwell is correct. None of the three school-affiliated commissioners stand to benefit, financially or otherwise, from granting or denying the school system’s request.
However, there is a valid point to be made about their involvement in the vote giving the public a perception of conflicted interests. The new school is already controversial, due to its proposed location in a residential neighborhood and debate about the need for an expensive facility.
We have no reason to think the school-affiliated commissioners can’t be objective in this matter, but it could be argued that, no matter the law, the final decision on the school zoning would be tainted in the public’s eye were they to participate.
It puts the commission in a difficult position. If all four school-affiliated folks stood aside, this important decision would be left to the three remaining commissioners.
There’s no easy answer to this situation, so we’re pleased to see the city taking extra time to consider not just how to vote, but who should vote.