City attorney dismisses ethics complaint against Byrd over vote to buy Furrs site
by David Crowder
Posted on July 8, 2009
The El Paso city attorney’s office has dismissed an ethics complaint by James Ratcliff against District 2 city Rep. Susie Byrd over her vote on the city’s decision to buy the former Furr’s store site in Northeast El Paso for $2.7 million.
Ratcliff lodged the complaint on June 24 after it was reported that Byrd has worked for Paul Zacour and Zacour and Associates, which did a private appraisal for the property’s owner in June 2008 that put a $3 million value on the 7-acre property.
The city commissioned its own appraisal of the property in May 2008 by Hoover Appraisal Co. that determined the site to be worth $2.4 million.
The city wants to build a new Sun Metro transit center on the property, and City Council voted in May of this year to buy it for the compromise price of $2.7 million. The property was on the Central Appraisal District rolls at a $780,000 value last year.
Assistant City Attorney Elaine Hengen, who serves as the lawyer for the city’s Ethics Review Commission, advised Ratcliff that she had dismissed his complaint by letter on Monday.
“Upon review of this complaint, I find that your allegation if true, would not as a matter of law, constitute a violation of the Ethics Ordinance,” Hengen’s letter read. “Additionally, your allegation relating to state law … is an allegation that is not within the purview of the Ethics Review Commission.
“Accordingly … your complaint is dismissed.”
Ratcliff, who is politically active and indicated an interest in running against Byrd in the spring elections but never filed as a candidate, disagreed.
“I still think there’s a conflict of interest,” he said. “If someone’s using that appraisal to evaluate the property, I think there’s a clear violation.”
In his complaint, Ratcliff called on the ethics commission "to reveal and report about how much direct or indirect involvement Rep. Byrd had with determining the cost of the appraisal in 2008, as the appraisal cost estimate was at the high end of the two appraisals that were considered for this property ... "
Byrd said she didn’t know Zacour had done an appraisal for the property’s California owner, George Meshkanian, before casting her vote. She said she only learned that when NewspaperTree.com interviewed her about the issue in late May. [link]
“I did nothing inappropriate,” Byrd said Tuesday. “My employer had no benefit from my vote. But if I had known he was the appraiser, I would have abstained.”
Byrd said she will abstain in such situations from now on even though the city attorney’s office determined that her work for Zacour did not constitute a conflict of interest in the Furrs transaction and would not have been a conflict even if Zacour had been the city’s appraiser.
“If Zacour’s involved, even though it’s not a legal conflict of interest, I will abstain and make a disclosure,” she said.
Byrd did abstain Tuesday when the council voted to increase its earnest money deposit on the purchase of the property sale by $35,000 because the closing has been delayed by an unresolved problem with the covenants on the property.
“This is not the first delay,” City Manager Joyce Wilson said. “The owners have been sitting on our offer. We need more earnest money to keep the deal locked in.”
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To reach David Crowder, write to email@example.com or call (915) 351-0605, ext. 30, or 630-6622.
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