116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — At least four of the nine Cedar Rapids City Council members may recuse themselves from voting on the Cedar Rapids Country Club’s request for the city to rezone land and vacate right of way to advance the club’s expansion plans, raising broader questions about how the part-time elected officials police whether they have conflicts of interests.
The city’s five-member Board of Ethics, which enforces policies for certain city officials about financial disclosure and conflicts of interest, this week voted to issue a non-binding advisory opinion recommending Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell and council member Tyler Olson do not vote on the Country Club’s request to rezone the nearly 185-acre site on 27th Street Drive SE.
Olson and O’Donnell’s husband are club members, and under city policy, city officials must consider immediate family in declaring conflicts of interest. An official draft of the advisory opinion had not yet been shared as of Wednesday afternoon.
The board technically considered only the rezoning request in its recommendation, but it’s unlikely council members would vote on the right of way vacation request if they also are recusing themselves from the rezoning vote. The Country Club’s requests are slated to come before the council May 10.
Council members Ann Poe and Marty Hoeger also will recuse themselves. Hoeger is recusing himself because a company in which he has an ownership interest may supply lumber for the project if approved. As for Poe, a nearby resident of the Country Club, she vowed at an April City Planning Commission meeting to recuse herself, citing a potential impact on nearby property values.
Olson wrote to the ethics board April 14 to request an advisory opinion because of his membership with the club. He wrote that O’Donnell was “similarly situated and joins this request,” and Hoeger was aware of the request.
If all four of these members recuse themselves, there would be five left who are able to vote — just enough for a quorum, assuming the rest are in attendance or do not later decide to recuse.
The Country Club is looking to expand over seven residential lots and potentially vacated right of way to develop a tennis complex and courts, expand the parking lot and modify the driving range to offer more amenities for members.
The council also must consider whether to grant the Country Club’s request for the city to vacate the right of way of Fairway Terrace SE, a road recently repaved using voter-backed sales tax funds.
The City Planning Commission last month voted 5-2 to support rezoning, but the right of way vacation vote is squarely under the council’s purview. As of April 7, 46 residents had signed a petition asking the council and City Planning Commission to oppose the project. Unless more residents have signed onto the petition, it’s unlikely it would trigger requirements for a supermajority vote.
To decide whether Olson and O’Donnell should recuse, ethics board members looked at the definition of private financial interest/gain, which the policy states is “any direct or indirect economic benefit or other consideration” to a city official, their immediate family or business entity or organization “that is not otherwise a benefit or other consideration to the general public and does not similarly benefit the general public.”
Board members agreed that if the Country Club paid for the expansion by making an assessment to members, that would constitute a financial cost. But board member Aaron Plummer said because the panel did not know whether the club planned to do that, the commissioners were somewhat “operating in a vacuum.”
He thought the expansion of club amenities alone constituted a “justifiable other consideration in terms of private interest that's not otherwise readily available to the public.”
A rules of the club document for fiscal 2019 shows club memberships vary in cost. A clubhouse membership costs $1,250 for the initiation fee and $2,040 in annual dues, and at the higher end, a regular membership costs $10,000 for the initiation fee and $7,380 in annual dues. Intermediate, social and commuter memberships cost a $5,000 initiation fee and about $4,500 in dues.
Gary Streit, chair of the Board of Ethics, said it was “unclear at best” whether there was a direct or indirect benefit from an expansion to members of the Country Club.
“There still is a feeling among the people in the room that we crossed this line of a person that would derive a direct or indirect economic benefit or other consideration that is not otherwise a benefit or other consideration of the general public,” Streit said. “To me that ‘or other consideration,’ you might get bragging rights by having an expanded tennis facility, you might have people buying drinks when you go out there.”
Landis Wiley, the Country Club’s board treasurer, told the Planning Commission the Country Club was closing to new members effective May 1. The club’s general manager did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Conflicts of interest
The ethics board’s determination sets a standard that may muddle how council members proceed in declaring conflicts of interest.
The council is made up of Cedar Rapids residents who work as full-time professionals in real estate, development, finance and other industries, and some as business owners and executives.
City Council members sometimes recuse themselves from votes, most commonly when a matter conflicts with their full-time employment and typically on economic development projects in which the council considers tax incentives.
For example, council member Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor, sometimes recuses himself from voting on certain projects — such as in a vote last May on financial incentives for a mixed-use facility from developer Big Ben LLC, an entity of Ahmann Companies. Earlier this year he voted to OK the development agreement, though, because one of his employees was no longer involved as the land had then been sold to Ahmann.
But this advisory opinion also could prompt the council members to more carefully consider intersections between their private affiliations and city business, such as when Hoeger, a St. Patrick’s Catholic Church parishioner, cast a vote against a street project to extend Sixth Street NW to Ellis Boulevard NW and connect Ellis to First Avenue. The project will add a median that parishioners said would complicate traffic flow to and from the church.
These examples aren’t exhaustive, but show some of the dilemmas facing council members when deciding to vote on certain matters.
The operation of the ethics board is required by the city's Home Rule Charter approved by voters in 2005. The ethics statute covers the mayor and council; the city manager, city clerk and city attorney; the police chief and fire chief; and scores of citizens who serve on city boards and commissions. The city manager has authority over most other city employees.
If the council wants to shore up language in the ethics statute, there’s an opportunity to do so as the city’s governing document undergoes a review. The deadline for the review is June 30.
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