Planning tackles ethics issue; commissioner resigns

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This is a delicate matter,” Chair Ann Sallee stated when the topic of Commissioner Conduct came up on the agenda at the May 8 Planning Commission meeting. She said she had spoken with both the Arkansas Municipal League and the Chicago office of the American Planning Association (APA) Ethics Office about her concerns with the conduct of commissioner Theodore Cottingham.

She then read from the Ethical Principles in Planning adopted from the APA that commissioners must abstain from discussions that might benefit them or closely related persons, and such conflicts should be disclosed publicly.

Sallee said, “Theodore, I have concerns about your motives for being on the Planning Commission.” She noted he took the oath of office on Feb. 23, attended his first meeting three days later and 10 days later announced he would run for mayor. Sallee stressed Cottingham never formally mentioned to the commission he was running for office, and she learned about it only in a casual conversation.

She said at every meeting, Cottingham has brought up the topic of a Master Plan for the city. She also said he produced videos and posted them online stating he is on the Planning Commission and wants to work on the city’s Master Plan. This was after commissioners had voted at a meeting not to work on one right now. Nevertheless, in another video Cottingham invited viewers to discuss the topic with him in a setting outside a Planning meeting.

“You cannot do that,” Sallee told him. “You can do that as a citizen. You cannot do that as a commissioner.”

Sallee also addressed Cottingham’s repeated concerns about the city’s need for an updated Master Plan. She produced a letter with an opinion on Master Plans from Municipal League attorney Jim von Tungeln. Commissioner Susan Harman read the letter that stated, “From what I know, the plan for Eureka Springs, although old now, did in fact address the specific geography, history and socio-economic factors of the city. Eureka Springs is generally regarded as the most unique city in the state. This provides benefits in terms of tourist attraction and a lifestyle that appeals to many. It also creates limitations in terms of traditional planning.”

Von Tungeln went on to state, “Although your plan is old, I would recommend caution in discarding it in favor of a ‘boilerplate’ one that resembles those cities that lack the unique character of Eureka Springs.”

Sallee told Cottingham she thought he had not been transparent with the commission. Commissioner Woodie Acord concurred, and Cottingham responded that he had spent most of his career as a planner for small businesses, so he was naturally drawn to this commission.

Sallee reiterated concerns regarding his focus on a Master Plan and videos in which he discusses Planning issues outside of meetings.

Cottingham responded all he wanted to do was bring the topic to the forefront for discussion and stated, “It was not in my consciousness to purposefully use this position to further my aim in the race for mayor.”

Then he asked what he is supposed to do when he meets with citizens and they voice their concerns. Sallee asked,” How many people have told you up front they were concerned about the Master Plan?” Cottingham replied no one had spoken those exact words to him, but folks do bring up Planning issues.

Sallee said Cottingham could remain on Planning and not work on his own on the Master Plan, or get off Planning and as a citizen “go for it.”

Cottingham responded he never intended to violate the ethics code, and did not get on the commission to further his chances of becoming mayor. He said it was normal for a candidate to discuss people’s concerns and he was not sure what he would do to avoid the conflict, but would consider what had been said and respond at the right time.

At the end of the meeting, Cottingham resigned. He said in light of what had been said, he wanted to continue speaking with citizens about their concerns, and not walk a tightrope to avoid ethics issues.

Next meeting will be May 22, at 6 p.m.