Official admonished for how petition was handled
By Lisa Brody
The Birmingham Ethics Board provided a preliminary advisory opinion against Samuel Oh, a member of the city's Triangle District Corridor Improvement Authority, on Tuesday, August 16, for misusing his title on a Change.org petition asking residents to sign for changes to the city's Triangle District Master Plan, along with disseminating disinformation, notably after city staff repeatedly provided him with the correct information.
The advisory opinion was sought by city manager Tom Markus, who noted that Oh is “a fairly new board member, and that while applicants have to sign they have read the city's ethics ordinance, they don't always understand it.” He noted the opinion came about after “some consternation between Oh and some city staff. He did not feel he was getting answers he felt he wanted.”
That assertion was repeated throughout the three-and-a-half hour meeting, as Oh challenged Markus, planning director Nicholas DuPuis, assistant city manager Jana Ecker, and the three-member ethics board themselves, stating over and over again that the city had an “overreach of their interpretation of official documents,” that he began the Change.org petition as “My name is Samuel Oh and I am a member of the Corridor Improvement Authority (Triangle District Development) Board,” as an effort towards full disclosure, and that the city had changed their Triangle District master plan in the 2040 master plan process, despite repeated clarifications that it had actually been approved in 2007 and was only reproduced in the 2040 master plan process.
“The Triangle plan hasn't changed in the 2040 master plan. That was what we were trying to convey as inaccurate,” Markus said. “The master plan is a global process. The Triangle plan is a zoning plan. It was merely a repetition in the 2040 master plan. There is a Triangle plan that was adopted in 2008. That's when development standards were adopted. There has never been a Triangle District Redevelopment Plan, as noted in the petition.
Ecker noted that a redevelopment study between 2013-2015 was not about redevelopment, but only about how much parking was needed using TIF money. “It didn't change height standards or ordinances,” she emphasized. “Saying increases in height and zoning – that is not true. That is already allowed since 2007. He's putting his name as a board member to give it weight, and all of the information he's putting out is false. He continued to put it out there after being told multiple times it was false.”
Oh complained he had to listen to “these inaccuracies that I am accused of… what is intent, and what was I representing.” As for putting his name on the petition, he said, “I was just giving it the perspective of a resident. If I didn't disclose it would build up distrust.”
Ethics board member James Robb disagreed, noting Oh never stated he was a resident in his petition, “so how could it be a conflict?”
Oh said, upon questioning from board member Sophie Fierro-Share, that even if he had known it was a violation of the ethics code, he would still have used it “because it's unethical not to.”
“If you're so concerned (about the purported master plan), why didn't you bring this up with your own board?” Robb asked. Oh said it was because he believed his interpretation is right.
“You're very adamant about being right,” Fierro-Share noted. “Errors are made. Making a mistake isn't unethical. Where's it's an issue happens when we're not open to understanding.”
In their discussions, board members noted that “even volunteers (to boards and commissions) are city officials.
“There have been other situations when public officials have been frustrated with other public officials, but you have to get along. Words matter,” Robb said. “As a public official, you have an obligation to make sure that statements of fact are in fact, facts. People see you as an official and maybe you were mistaken on some things you put in your petition, but that can cause mistrust of city officials by the public.”
“Despite his disagreement, he disseminated some false information,” board member John Schrot Jr. said. “I found it disturbing that Mr. Oh referred to the city as 'the other side' – we're supposed to be working for a common ground… disseminating of false information is even worse than the use of the title. It might have been innocent, but it was dangerous. And strongly converse to the code of ethics. City staff attempted to address this issue, and rightly so, filed the request for an advisory opinion.”
“Mr. Oh is a member of a board and has not included the board in any of the things he has done – it's indicative of a mindset… he has no respect. That's a problem. His attitude here, they're indicative of a hostility that's very difficult to work with. I'm disturbed that his attitude is so hostile and hopelessly blocked.”
Shrot was assigned to write the draft advisory opinion for board consideration.
Coincidentally, Oh has recently filed to run for a position on the school board for the Birmingham Schools.