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Tiffin officials bypass further delays on Ireland Avenue

Councilors’ conflict of interest concern provokes angry exchange

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader

TIFFIN– The City of Tiffin has just one final step to take before it can complete the extension of Ireland Avenue.
And with a price tag of nearly $600,000, it’s kind of a doozey.
It has taken more than six years to get here, the project delayed at different points by stalled agreements with the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) school district, lengthy Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) review processes, council indecision over capital improvement funding methods and protracted right-of-way negotiations with businesses and residents.
The last point of negotiation is the city’s deal with Grace United Methodist Church at the corner of Highway 6 and Roberts Ferry Road, where a parking lot will need to be re-done and an entrance moved in order to provide for the roadway.
Ireland Avenue is the north/south road that brings motorists from Interstate 80 into Tiffin, breaks at College Street, and then picks up on the north side of Highway 6, where it runs conjunctively with Roberts Ferry Road. For years, the city has wanted to fill in the gap between College Street and Highway 6, taking it northward adjacent to CCA’s middle school property and next to the drive for Jon’s Ice Cream Store and Restaurant.
Last year, the city crossed a bit of rough terrain in working to settle an agreement with the owner of Jon’s Ice Cream Store to determine where the business’ drive would be situated. Finally, the IDOT okayed plans that will allow the city to purchase a very small amount of right-of-way on that property and move the business drive slightly to the east. Now the city must obtain a second appraisal to determine the value of the property.
In addition to finishing that business, the council voted 4-1 at its Sept. 25 meeting to pay the Depot $2,550 for a temporary easement for the project’s construction.
It has city officials hopeful they are almost there, but for one set of details to finalize with Grace United Methodist Church officials.
Work on Ireland Avenue means the church’s parking lot will have to be reworked and its handicapped-accessible entrance moved, both of which have become the city’s financial responsibility in addition to purchasing a permanent easement on the property. The city’s payment to the church is estimated to be just under $600,000.
The price tag was enough to cause two councilors to hold their approval.
Royce Phillips was concerned about a potential conflict of interest, as three of Tiffin’s council people– Jo Kahler, Mike Ryan and Jim Bartels– are also members of Grace United Methodist.
Tiffin’s assistant city attorney, Crystal Raiber of Lynch, Michael and Raiber LLP, said it was her firm’s opinion that it was not.
“From our research, it does not appear to be a conflict simply to have members of the church on the city council,” said Raiber.
But Raiber’s remarks did not satisfy Phillips or councilor Peggy Upton.
Upton asked for Raiber to provide citations supporting the law firm’s opinion, and a written follow-up letter.
“I’m not sure if it is or isn’t (a conflict of interest,) but I’m not real comfortable with it,” Upton said. “It kills me to delay Ireland Avenue, but this is by far the largest amount of money on any of these right-of-way things we’ve done. I don’t want people coming back later asking why the church got such a big check when we’ve got church members sitting on council. If it’s clearly not a conflict that’s great, but it would be great to see the references.”
Phillips suggested instead that the council appoint an outside committee of uninterested parties to review the deal with the church, to “analyze what would be fair for the church, and then those folks could make a recommendation and the council could vote up or down what they propose,” Phillips said.
Mayor Steve Berner failed to see how that would resolve any conflict.
“You’d still have three people on the council who are members of the church voting yes or no on is what is proposed for the church right now. It’s the same difference,” said Berner.
“Right now I have to agree with Royce,” Upton said. “I think it at least has the appearance of a conflict, and if I have the (citations), that will make me more comfortable.”
Upton’s motion to obtain a letter of opinion from the attorney died in a 2-2 vote, as council member Mike Ryan was absent for this portion of the meeting and council members Kahler and Bartels voted against it.
Berner stepped in to provide direction anyway.
“Send her the (citations),” Berner instructed Raiber. “It’s public information. Help her find it.”
Kahler noted that none of the three council members are on the church board of trustees, and therefore had no decision-making responsibilities at the church.
It wasn’t enough to convince Phillips or Upton, and the meeting turned into a tense back-and-forth exchange.
“We have a legal opinion from our counsel that says there is no conflict, and I’d like to see the council act on the church,” Berner said. “If you publicly state you are members of the church and vote, according to what (the attorney) says, we’re good. Royce doesn’t agree with that.”
Kahler chimed in.
“Royce doesn’t agree but the rest of us do agree,” Kahler said.
Phillips countered in his own defense.
“I only have three degrees in theology and ethics,” he offered, and Kahler didn’t miss a beat.
“What about common sense?” Kahler asked. Berner didn’t stop there.
“He doesn’t have any of those,” Berner said.
After Phillips’ complaint of the inappropriateness of the verbal skirmish, Upton tried to turn the discussion back to the matter at hand; the details of dealing with the church.
The city had proposed to hold 10 percent of the city’s contribution in escrow as a safeguard against project overruns, and the church agreed. However, Upton asked if the church would keep the excess should actual project costs come in substantially lower.
“I think so,” Berner replied. “They verbally said they would not do that– from one of the trustees of the church. Their contractor basically told them to stick at 10 percent. He says the only surprises they are going to see are overages.” The contractor for the church is Mark Portwood, Berner noted.
Upton said initial thoughts were that project estimates were generous, and actual costs could be well below estimates. She asked Berner to renegotiate a 15 percent escrow fund so the city wouldn’t stand to lose as much if costs ran lower than expected.
“I am happy to talk to them again,” Berner said. “Give some thought on those numbers and let’s try to get a decision made at next meeting.”
The council’s next meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 9, at 6:30 p.m. in the Springmeier Library.