116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last week, four members of the nine-member Cedar Rapids City Council recused themselves from a debate and vote on two measures that would clear the way for an expansion project at the Cedar Rapids Country Club. It’s notable, considering the sheer number of council members involved.
Council member Marty Hoeger recused because his lumber business has bid on country club projects in the past and likely will bid on its expansion. That’s a pretty clear financial interest outcome.
Mayor Pro Tem Ann Poe, who lives in the neighborhood potentially affected by the project, opted for recusal on the advice of the city attorney, who wrote, “Your status as a neighbor makes you an interested party. As a result, your private financial interest in your real property is clearly separate from that of the general public, and as the decision affects you as a neighbor, this is a conflict of interest under the City’s code.”
Council member Tyler Olson, a country club member, sought advice from the city’s Ethics Board. It recommended that Olson and Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell, whose husband is a club member, could have a conflict, even though it is “not possible to quantify in measurable financial terms …”
But the board argued participating in the debate and vote, “may involve the receipt by you and a member of Mayor O’Donnell’s immediate family of ‘other consideration that is not otherwise a benefit or other consideration to the general public.’”
So then there were five, led by “Mayor Pro Tem-Tem” Dale Todd. The council voted 3-2 to table the club’s request for rezoning and vacating a portion of a street. Supporters of a delay echoed the concerns of nearby residents worried by how a new, large indoor tennis facility and other changes will affect traffic, parking, stormwater drainage and the character of the historic neighborhood. It was the right call.
We’re less certain about the call for recusals. We respect the work of the city attorney and Board of Ethics. But we also worry that setting too low a bar for recusal could create a precedent that makes it tougher for council members to do the job they’re elected to do.
O’Donnell recently told our editorial board she’s worried about that prospect. So is Todd, who pointed to all of the ties most council members have to community institutions and organizations. If simply being a member without a clear conflict becomes the rule, recusals could become more common.
We simply hope in a future a productive balance can be struck between the need for ethical conduct and the community’s expectation that their elected representatives can weigh in on public policy. This episode should spark a discussion.
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