Did donations compromise council members?

Mar. 22, 2014 @ 03:36 PM

An Indian Trail official called on two council members to recuse themselves from voting on projects brought by developers who donated to their campaigns.

Wednesday, Indian Trail Planning Board member Cathi Higgins wrote an email calling on council members Gordon Daniels and Gary Savoie not to vote on a residential development project because the people involved donated money to them.

"I would like to see the council members without a financial interest in this voting on the project," Higgins said.

School overcrowding became a hot issue after the Union County Board of Education announced plans to redistrict to relieve overcrowding in certain schools. The population in the county's western towns boomed over the last decade. Residential development outpaced infrastructure construction. Some blame county government for not updating services like water, sewer and school capacity. Some blame developers for planning large housing developments. Some blame the county government for approving so much construction. County officials defended themselves by pointing out the municipalities — especially Indian Trail and Waxhaw  — have issued the most residential building permits.

After a search of campaign finance records available on the Union County Board of Elections website, Higgins found that both Daniels and Savoie took contributions from developers or their employees.

"If it is correct, I am requesting you recuse yourselves, or the council recuse you both, from the decision making process for the Blanchard Circle Subdivision Conditional Zoning case," Higgins wrote.

Campaign finance allows for almost anyone to donate money to political campaigns. Donations from corporate employees is not at all unusual. But Higgins said the particulars of these donations stood out.

Dale and Tracy Olson, Kyle M. Holt, Darren Sutton, Wade Elmore Jr., Jennifer Barbarino Reagin, Karen McClain, Cathie Campbell and Stephanie Barker, all employees of Bonterra Builders, donated $1,750 to both campaigns.

"They all gave the same amount and the same time," Higgins said.

Dennis Moser or The Moser Group gave $350 to Savoie's campaign. He denied that his contribution was intended to sway council votes.

"I personally gave (Savoie) $350. No employees of The Moser Group have ever given to political campaigns and never will," Moser wrote. "It is disappointing to me that I work so hard and take such risk for a town and county I love, to try to make it a better place to live, work, shop, etc, then see actions like this by a planning board member."

Moser did not meet Daniels until after the election, he said.

Dean Harrell, with Bonterra Builders, did not respond to an email requesting a comment by press time.

Daniels fired back at Higgins by email for lumping Moser into his campaign donors.

"My records indicate that I received donations from many corporate EMPLOYEES but not from the Moser Group and it's employees," Daniels wrote. "Further, my records do not show any contributions from any corporations. However, most of my campaign contributions came from family, friends and neighbors, who work for corporations as do most Americans."

When reached for comment, Daniels said campaign contributions from individuals is legal to his knowledge.

"And if I'm wrong and it's illegal to accept campaign contributions from people who work for corporations, I'd like to know," he said.

While such donations are legal and common, Higgins said it plants doubt in minds of the town residents.

"I've been involved in my town's government since I moved here," Higgins said. "And before I moved here, I was active in the town I lived in in Maryland for 20 years.

"And in my experience with town government, there have been times when those elected officials were offered campaign funds by business owners but they sent the money back because they didn't want the appearance of favoritism."

Daniels and Savoie have been criticized about accepting donations from developers since they won the municipal elections in November. Builders and land developers are not the only occupations of donors to both campaign. Daniels received money from a dentist, an accountant with Time Warner Cable, a UPS pilot and several retired individuals. Most of Savoie's donors are associated with Bonterra Builders, according to campaign finance records. Its employees donated a total of $1,750 to each candidate.

Savoie said he campaigned on more commercial development and it appealed to voters. He denied that campaign donations would affect his vote. And he said he has not been pressured by any developers to vote a certain way.

"I'm in the business world and there's a business ethic," he said. "I can say that nobody expects me to vote a certain way because they contributed to my campaign."

He cited statements by University of North Carolina School of Government faculty that a sitting council member is obligated to vote on issues and only recuse themselves if they stand to gain financially from the vote's outcome. In this case, he does not stand to financially benefit from the vote, Savoie said.

Higgins said she did not speak for the town's planning board, but for herself. Lobbying the town council for a project is common and a right people have as American citizens.

"I've even lobbied the board before, but the difference is that I've never given them money," Higgins said.