Cedar Rapids City Council advances Country Club expansion plans, but ethics questions remain

View of the Cedar Rapids Country Club’s proposed indoor tennis facility as part of the club’s expansion plans (courtesy of city of Cedar Rapids)

A photograph showing proposed development at the Cedar Rapids Country Club is seen as Cedar Rapids City Council member Tyler Olson listens to a speaker during a public comment session about the proposed tennis center construction at the Cedar Rapids Country Club at a Cedar Rapids City Council meeting at City Hall in southeast Cedar Rapids Iowa, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — With the Cedar Rapids Country Club’s expansion plans receiving the green light this week from the five City Council members who weren’t rescued from voting by conflicts of interest, questions remain over whether the city should tighten language in its ethics policy over when the part-time officials can vote.

Four council members — an unusually high number — recused themselves from consideration of the Country Club’s requests to rezone land and vacate Fairway Terrace SE right of way to expand over seven residential lots to develop a tennis complex and courts, expand the parking lot and modify the driving range.

Though it’s rare for nearly a majority of the council to face such conflicts in considering a matter slated to come before the nine-member body, some members worry the situation opens a Pandora’s box of the elected officials being conflicted out of a vote — or sitting out a hard vote — because of their jobs and affiliations.

The modified Country Club expansion plans passed unanimously with approval from the five voting members. Country Club officials made several changes including stormwater management plans, adjusting the Colonial-style design to fit the neighborhood, adding screening and parking and minimizing light pollution to address many residents’ concerns. Additionally, they told the council they were working with not-for-profit Save CR Heritage to move houses on the club-owned lots to make way for the expansion.

The city Board of Ethics advised Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell and council member Tyler Olson to recuse themselves because O’Donnell’s husband is a member and Olson is a member of the club. Council member Marty Hoeger was absent Tuesday, but previously recused himself because of a business interest in the project. Council member Ann Poe was advised by the city attorney to recuse herself because, as a nearby resident, the proposed expansion could have an impact on her property values.

Council member Dale Todd, who presided over the meeting during these votes because O’Donnell and Poe, the mayor pro tem, could not vote, said the situation is “worrisome.”

The city’s council-manager form of government, which took effect in 2006, is set up so that elected officials work on a part-time basis and guide the policy direction of the city while maintaining their private affiliations and employment, while the full-time city manager oversees staff and operations.

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.

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.

“In this town, my experience is it’s like two degrees of separation that everybody is related to everybody, and to some degree you’re either on a board or somehow you know folks,” Todd said.

According to city policy, a conflict of interest occurs when a city officials “take an action or vote when you have, or reasonably can be expected to have, a Private Financial Interest or expect a Private Gain in the outcome that is separate from the general public’s financial interest or gain.”

Seeing the ethics board’s advisory opinion, O’Donnell said the panel had a literal interpretation of the ordinance for its decision on her and Olson’s recusals.

“This would be an opportunity for us to go back and look and say, ”Do we have to reexamine how this is worded?’” O’Donnell said. “Because initially to me it feels like, ‘Wow, it’s going to eliminate us from being able to do our jobs as council members.’”

The Charter Review Commission, which is slated to make recommendations to the council by June 30 on potential changes to the “home rule” charter that outlines city government, could suggest revisions to ethics language. Gary Streit is chair of both the Charter Review Commission and the city Board of Ethics.

Council member Scott Overland, who works at Cedar Rapids Bank and Trust, sometimes speaks during council meetings to note that there is an item on the agenda pertaining to his employer but that he has no financial stake in the matter.

He said the ethics policy hasn’t been put to the test much in the past to the point of causing this many council members to recuse themselves. Overland said the system so far has worked well.

“I think ultimately the decision to recuse really rests with the elected official in examining whether they have a conflict,” he said. “I don’t think that the bias should be to err on the side of, ‘There might be a conflict in my own personal opinion.’ I think the bias is to vote. But I think it’s important for each member to assess that situation.”

The Charter Review Commission could look at whether the ethics policy language is too broad, but the issue is worth considering, Overland said. “I think that is something that needs to be thought about as far as what constitutes a recusal in light of the fact that most of the council members are involved in the community in one way or another outside of council,” he said.

But Overland said there could be potential unintended consequences of tightening language.

“As long as you have an elected body that errs toward voting on issues, which is what we’re elected to do, if a person votes on an issue and somebody has a problem with it, then they can always go to the ethics board and they can review that situation,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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