Questions Arise About Lobbyist’s Role on Planning Board

By Beacon Staff

At a recent meeting of the planning board, former member Don Hines questioned George Culpepper’s spot on the board, calling it a blatant conflict of interest. The Flathead Building Association hired Culpepper in January – shortly after he was appointed to the board – as a full-time government affairs director for the group, lobbying for local, state and national issues as they relate to the building industry.

Hines asked the board to discuss Culpepper’s position at the end of the meeting, but it was never revisited.

Since then, other residents have echoed Hines’ complaints. One group even suggested starting a petition to have Culpepper removed.

Meanwhile, Flathead County commissioners referred the question to county attorneys, who say there is little regulation governing the board’s members.

“I don’t think there’s a statute that says he can’t serve on the board,” Jonathan Smith, chief deputy county attorney, said. “Some people believe there’s an inherent conflict, but as for regulations governing that, there aren’t any.”

And for his part, Culpepper says: “I’m serving as a private citizen and that’s my right. And those people who are trying to take that civil right, I will fight them tooth and nail and go to the Supreme Court if I have to.”

Culpepper contends the only requirement dictating his membership on the board is whether he owns property within the board’s jurisdiction. Anything more, he says, is discrimination.

State law seems to back him up.

The planning board isn’t a rulemaking or quasi-judicial board, like the board of adjustment, Smith said, so state ethical codes for public officers, legislators and public employees don’t apply to its members. The section of Montana code that outlines a planning board’s role namely requires that a board member owns property within the jurisdiction he or she represents.

Over the last year-and-a-half, Culpepper has become a familiar face at government meetings throughout the valley, particularly in Whitefish and at the county level.

In October 2007, he was hired as the new government affairs director for the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors. He was paid to attend government meetings, speak for or against proposed laws and report back to special government affairs committees – essentially, act as a localized lobbyist.

During that time, Culpepper was especially vocal during the Whitefish planning doughnut controversy, lobbying for the planning area to fall under the county’s control, and in opposing Whitefish’s critical areas ordinance. He also questioned the contracts and integrity of some Whitefish city employees and lobbied against the county’s streamside setback recommendations.

At the beginning of this year, Culpepper took a similar position with the Flathead Building Association. His predecessor, Charles Lapp, another well-known voice in area politics, had held a part-time position for two years.

With Culpepper, the association expanded its government affairs role to full time and, at the time, said they also planned to mobilize a team of 20 to 30 volunteers to attend meetings. Part of the group’s mission statement is “serving as the voice of our members, proactively influencing the legislative and regulatory process.”

About 350 businesses belong to the Flathead Building Association, including mostly construction-related firms, a handful of banks and a few developers.

Culpepper was still working for NMAR when he applied in December for one of the four open county planning board seats. Three of those seats went to incumbent board members, with the commission choosing Culpepper for the fourth in a 2-1 vote.

“I strenuously objected – not against him personally, but because we had other applicants who I felt could do just as good of a job and who didn’t have the appearance of conflict of interest,” Commissioner Joe Brenneman said.

Other applicants included Lavon Hill, James Malone, Karen Reeves, Jeff Larsen, Charles Lapp and Karen Witt.

Brenneman also noted that the Montana Building Association, with help from the Flathead Building Association and NMAR, has said it plans to sue the county over the county’s subdivision regulations – rules Culpepper is expected to uphold as a planning board member. “It didn’t make sense to me to appoint somebody who’s involved in litigation with the county over regulations they’re expected to enforce,” he said.

In the past, the county commission has been criticized for “being top heavy with pro-development people,” Brenneman said. Several past and current planning board members have worked in development-related industries, including construction, surveying, real estate and engineering.

Commissioner Dale Lauman, who voted along with former Commissioner Gary Hall for Culpepper’s appointment, said he thinks the planning board should have a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, ideas and philosophies.

“My personal feeling was that George would bring something different because of his expertise,” Lauman said.

While Brenneman opposed Culpepper’s appointment originally, he says he thinks the matter is now an ethical question for Culpepper to decide. “If Mr. Culpepper feels that as a matter of personal integrity it’s OK to stay on board, I don’t anticipate lobbying Jim (Dupont) or Dale to remove him,” he said.

Culpepper says he’s staying.

Conflict of interest accusations could be leveled against “all members of the planning board – past and present – if you try hard enough,” he said. He added that he would recuse himself from votes if a member of the building association’s board brought a project before the planning board.

“If it’s a member of our board, the people who write my check, that’s where I would step back,” Culpepper said.

Obviously upset at the accusations, he questioned Hines’ political motives and leveled harsh words at his critics: “They need to quit playing their dance acts and just suck it up and respect the county commission’s decision to place me on this board.”