Conflictof interest alleged by some

Published on Thu, Oct 27, 2005 by ara Nelson, Meg Olson

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Conflict of interest alleged by some

By Tara Nelson, Meg Olson

Some Blaine citizens are speculating as to whether three council members have acted on a conflict of interest.

In an email circulated by Dennis Hill, organizer of the Revitalize Blaine Now action committee, which claims to study alternative uses to the Blaine Municipal Airport, Hill argued city council member Bob Brunkow’s decision not to recuse himself from voting on the legality of an anti-airport citizen initiative constituted a possible conflict of interest because he owns a hangar there.

The initiative put forth by RBN asked the question, “Should Blaine abolish the airport as a municipal function.”

During an October 4 special work session of the Blaine City Council, Brunkow had expressed a concern about a possible conflict of interest regarding his vote but later changed his mind.

Brunkow, who has owned a hanger at the airport for more than three years, said he asked city attorney Jon Sitkin for advice before making his vote because he did not want to pose a conflict of interest. Sitkin, however, researched the matter and said it did not.

“The matter the council was voting on was whether or not the initiative petition was sufficient under law,” city attorney Jon Sitkin explained earlier. “This vote did not involve the approval, rejection or enforcement of a contract. Furthermore, it was not a land use matter so the appearance of fairness doctrine does not apply. That’s why I advised him he was not legally barred from voting on the motion.”

Sitkin said conflict of interest rules only apply to the award, denial and enforcement of a contract and that the decision to put an initiative on the ballot was not an example of that.

He added that city council members often vote on issues that may affect them directly, but that does not always constitute a conflict. One example, he said, is when council members vote for road improvements.

“By way of example, if the city council votes to approve a six-year road plan, the plan could include improvement of a road at or near a council member’s home,” Sitkin said. “In that case, a council member is not barred from voting on the road plan.”

He added, however, voting on the award of a construction contract to a company that a council member owns or where the council member is a subcontractor for the winning bid on the project, would constitute a conflict of interest.

Sitkin also said many people confuse another rule called the appearance of fairness doctrine, a clause that applies to conflict of interest in land-use matters, such as a council member voting to change the zoning of a piece of property, for which they would benefit financially.

“This vote did not involve a vote for a land use matter,” he said. “There are simply no applicable conflict of interest rules to prevent a council member from voting on the motion.”

In a later interview, Brunkow said he thought it would be important to recuse himself but then decided it wasn’t necessary because of Sitkin’s advice.

“If you ever have a vote, and even if there is a remote possibility of a conflict of interest, it is important to look into that,” Brunkow said. “I wanted to make sure, but turned out the vote was 6-0, so it was a non-issue there.”

In addition, Brunkow said he contacted the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, which reviewed the case and supported Sitkin’s decision.

“On this particular vote, it was determined by the city attorney, and supported by a review by the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, that it was appropriate to participate,” he said.

City manager Gary Tomsic said while he thinks this particular decision did not constitute a conflict of interest, a council member’s decision to recuse him or herself from voting is usually a good idea if they have something to gain from the outcome of the decision.

“The city attorney determined that Mr. Brunkow voting on the specific ballot issue was not a conflict,” he said. “The fact that Bob has a land lease with the city is not by itself a conflict since it was entered into before he became a council member. However, any council action that affects the lease could be a conflict and he should probably recuse themselves from voting on these types of issues.”

In a September 12 city council meeting, the RBN committee presented more than 500 signatures supporting his initiative to the council. Forslof said her office checked 391 of the 508 signatures submitted by RBN. Of the 391 signatures checked, 330 were valid.

The council unanimously struck down the initiative and wrote a new, non-legally binding ballot question meant to advise the council on the wishes of Blaine citizens.

Tomsic said the council struck down the initiative because it did not meet legal requirements by making reference to a specific ordinance. He also said because the airport is a municipal function, it is not subject to the initiative process.

“The city council determined that the ballot wording was insufficient based upon the law as presented by the city attorney,” he said. “Had the council determined otherwise, the issue would have been legally challenged by those opposed to the petition. This would have then gone to court and there would have been nothing on the November ballot. In the end, the council believed that it was important to get a sense from the community to help them make the ultimate decision on the airport.”

Hill, however, said he was not convinced.

“How can you say it’s not a land use matter when 40 acres of city-owned property are being designated as an airport when it could be used as many other possibilities,” he said. “They make it sound like it’s all about airplanes. For me, though, it’s all about property. The truth will really come out when this election is over. To me it’s a no-brainer that there is an appearance of conflict of interest. When council members vote to directly increase their property value, that’s a direct conflict of interest.”

Also, at an October 24 city council meeting, Hill made a second allegation of conflict of interest aimed at Brunkow and council members Mike Myers and Bruce Wolf.

“I didn’t know Misters Meyers, Brunkow and Wolf were airport-huggers, incapable of being objective,” Hill told council members at the meeting.

Hill asked why the council had changed the original question on the November from one to abolishing the airport to one of a feasibility study for closing the airport. “There are many people who signed the petition that are upset that what they signed is not what they are voting on,” he said.

He also accused Brunkow, Meyer and Wolf of “not representing their respective wards,” and of “pushing their own personal views.”

Meyer was not accused of any direct conflict of interest in the written statement Hill distributed to council, but of “scare tactics” in his support of the airport. Also at the meeting, David White alleged Wolf knew about future plans for infrastructure improvement when he purchased a building at 633 Peace Portal Drive in December of 2002 for $145,000 from realtor Chuck Green who was on the Blaine planning commissioner at the time.

Wolf is now selling the 3,485-square foot building through realtor Mike Kent for $299,000 according to the listing on Windermere’s web site.

“I think they should either recuse themselves from decisions regarding the airport or resign,” he said

While council members did not respond to Hill’s allegations, city manager Gary Tomsic restated the city’s position that none of the council members had acted improperly.