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Recusals put more pressure on controversial Cedar Rapids council vote

Nearly unanimous vote needed to clear way for affordable housing complex

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Raising the stakes for their colleagues, two of the nine Cedar Rapids City Council members are citing conflicts of interest in recusing themselves from controversial votes on an affordable housing complex that includes apartments for the homeless.

Council members Kris Gulick and Susie Weinacht have withdrawn from considering the Commonbond Communities request to rezone city land to build the $9 million Crestwood Ridge Apartments at 1200 Edgewood Drive NW.

The complex received an $8 million federal tax credit because 10 percent or five of the 45 units are reserved as permanent housing for the homeless. But neighborhood opposition to the project triggered a requirement for three-quarters support from City Council.

“At our next meeting, assuming everyone is present, we’ll have six votes that would be required of the seven people that will be officially voting on the rezoning public hearing,” Mayor Ron Corbett said.

This means the measure would need nearly unanimous support to pass. The first of three votes is expected later this month.

Cedar Rapids has loose standards for recusing on votes, and it is at the discretion of the council member.

“It is up to individual council members when we do recuse from a vote,” said Gulick, who regularly recuses himself when the matter involves a client of his accounting firm, Entrepreneurial Services Group.

In this case, the client is the Willis Dady Emergency Shelter. If the Commonbond project comes to life, Willis Dady would have a contract to provide services for the homeless units.

“If they get a contract and become more successful, their business gets larger and more complicated, so we would get more work,” Gulick said.

Weinacht said her recusal was “due to a board relationship.”

When contacted later by The Gazette, Weinacht clarified in part, saying “I was initially concerned and announced last night under an abundance of caution because I serve on a board that is awarding financial support to this project. I am clarifying those concerns with others and reviewing the facts and rules.”

Weinacht did not say which board she serves on that poses a conflict. Weinacht doesn’t serve on the boards of Willis Dady, Commonbond or the Iowa Finance Authority, which awarded the tax credit.

Earlier this week, City Council member Justin Shields questioned the recusals during a City Council meeting.

“Isn’t the normal rule if you recuse yourself you have a financial gain, or are there other circumstances involved?” he asked City Attorney Jim Flitz.

Flitz responded: “There are several ways members of a deliberative body can have a conflict of interest, one of which is our ethics ordinance, which is a financial conflict of interest ordinance. The Board of Ethics has also provided information to navigate those situations.”

When pressed for examples beyond financial, Flitz said, he could think of none. “Not off the top of my mind,” he said.

After the meeting, Shields elaborated on why he asked.

“I feel very strongly we were elected to vote on difficult issues and there should be a really good reason to recuse yourself,” he said. ”But, we don’t have any solid rules and regulations.”

City spokeswoman Maria Johnson said the city attorney’s office is consulted at times on recusals, but not always, and the City Council may also seek advisory opinions from the Board of Ethics. She said she couldn’t comment specifically if any council members sought advice in this case.

Board of Ethics members Bill Vincent and David Baker said they have received no request for advice on recusals in the past several months.

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