By Robert Nathan
Killeen Daily Herald
Despite casting a vote against an ordinance revision that would potentially impact his business, Councilman Fred Latham says he displayed no conflict of interest and maintains his decision was ethical.
Latham, a local Realtor, advocated for his industry during months of discussions leading up to the Killeen City Council's approval of an ordinance revision on Tuesday.
The revision imposes an annual fee for the use of off-premises real estate signs, along with other provisions. Latham's decision to not step down during the vote was questioned by another council member.
Deputy City Attorney Traci Briggs said a council member has to make the determination whether he is involved in a conflict of interest.
"In this case, Mr. Latham is the one who has to decide because he has all of the facts," Briggs said. "He's the one who knows whether or not there is a conflict."
State law provides a two-part test for ascertaining whether a local official has a conflict of interest regarding a business entity that would prevent the official from participating in a vote or discussion before a governing body.
The official must determine if he received 10 percent or more of his gross income in the previous year from that business entity or other substantial ownership interest in the business entity.
The official also must determine whether the action that the local entity is considering would have a special economic effect on the business entity that is
distinguishable from its general effect on the public.
"You couldn't devise a scenario where it would impact me like that," Latham said.
He said his business, Rancier Reality, consists only of himself and his son and holds a minimal amount of open houses. He said his business focuses primarily on property management and commercial sales.
"If you look at my record every time since I've served, if I felt like there was a conflict of interest or a big perception I always stepped down," said Latham, who has served as mayor and eight years on the council.
Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General, said his office does not get involved in such a dispute unless it involves a legal opinion.
"Generally, by and large the AG does not impose itself into the working of local governments," Kelley said.
An off-premises real estate sign leads potential customers to where a particular home is – posted away from the house being sold. Officials said all other off-premises signs already are illegal. Under the ordinance revision that will go into effect Jan. 1, the use of off-premises real estate signs will be limited to weekends.
A city-issued sticker that would identify the sign's owner would be placed on the sign. Real estate agents will be required to pay an annual $25 fee for the permit and first sticker. Additional stickers could be purchased for $1 each within the same calendar year.
The city of Harker Heights does not allow off-premises real estate signs, but has been lenient on the enforcement because the signs are posted on the weekends, when code enforcement employees do not work.
Latham, who was one of three dissenting votes Tuesday, argued the off-premises real estate signs are placed on private property and not on public rights of way. He further argued that imposing such fees is a punishment to the real estate community that helps expand the city's tax base by marketing Killeen.
"I don't think its an ethical issue," Latham said. "That's a matter of perception."
Councilman Dick Young, who supported the ordinance revision, said he asked the city attorney Tuesday if Latham was violating any conflict of interest provisions. He said it is not uncommon for council members to step down when council action poses a conflict of interest relating to a council member's occupation.
"Sometimes we're too close to the issue," Young said.
Councilman Larry Cole, who supported Latham's position, said there was no need for the council member to step down during the vote because no financial gain was cited.
The council initially approved the ordinance in July that established permit requirements for off-premises real estate sales signs on private property. During an August workshop, the council received a presentation regarding the enforcement of the new ordinance.
Then the council directed city staff to assign an appropriate fee for the costs of services. Council members expressed mixed feelings about the ordinance change when it was discussed during a September meeting and voted to postpone the possible fee addition for 60 days to give the issue further consideration.
The issue initially was brought before the council to reduce the number of randomly placed signs and to encourage the use of kiosks. Members of the real estate community said a kiosk would limit their space of advertisement.
Contact Robert Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org