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Philip Cousin can serve on county commission and Durham Committee on Affairs of Black People

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Philip Cousin says there is no conflict of interest in his leading one of the city's most powerful political advocacy groups and his appointment to the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

Cousin will remain chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People after committee members affirmed their support of him at a meeting earlier this month.

Cousin previously served on the board of commissioners for eight years. The current commission appointed him in June to replace Joe Bowser, whose term runs until December. Bowser resigned his position shortly after finishing seventh in May's Democratic primary.

Formed in 1935 as the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, the committee remains one of the most powerful political advocacy groups in Durham. Lavonia Allison led the committee for 14 years. Cousin was elected chairman in December 2011 after Allison announced that she would not seek another term.

Durham committee members, speaking only on background because they're not authorized to talk to the media on the group's behalf, say that after Cousin's appointment to the board of commissioners, there was grousing within the organization that it hadn't been formally discussed before he accepted.

Committee members say there were concerns that the group's own rules would require Cousin to step down. Some members informally discussed how Allison could potentially return.

But the committee's constitution does not prevent its chairman from holding elected office, says Cousin. And discussion of Allison's return "never rose to the level of being discussed formally by the committee as a whole."

Cousin says the committee and the commission share similar views about the future of Durham County. "And I certainly don't feel that the aims of the committee are antithetical to the goals and aims of the county," he added.

There is a possibility for conflict. For example, Allison was an outspoken advocate of the controversial 751 South project, a position that put her at odds with some county officials. As chairperson of the committee, she held considerable influence, and so will Cousin.

Reckhow says that the board discussed the potential conflict prior to Cousin's appointment. "My understanding was that Phil felt he could segregate his duties," says Reckhow.

Board members were assured, she says, "he would not be presenting things on behalf of the Durham committee or doing any activism that would compromise decisions on the board."

Nothing in the county bylaws or the board of commissioners' ethics policy specifically prohibits a commissioner from holding a leadership position in a political advocacy group, says Kathy Everett-Perry of the Durham county attorney's office.

Similarly, Keith Bishop, chairman of the committee's legal redress subcommittee, says nothing in the group's bylaws bars the chairman from holding an elected office. "I've never seen a restriction that addresses that," Bishop says.

But if a conflict were to arise during the Durham committee's voting process, Cousin says he would recuse himself.

Bowser's permanent replacement on the board of commissioners will take office in December; Cousin is not running for election to keep the seat.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Conflict resolution."

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