Ruling divides Columbia Council Merke has conflict on golf course vote, legal opinion says

October 15, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

A legal opinion issued this week says Columbia Council Member Joseph Merke shouldn't have participated in an Oct. 8 vote on whether he has a conflict of interest.

According to council Chairman John Hansen, the opinion found that Mr. Merke shouldn't have been allowed to vote on whether he has a conflict in voting on the proposed $5.5 million Fairway Hills golf course. The course would abut his Town Center property.

Several council members now want the council's conflict-of-interest policy to be revised to bar members from participating in decisions on whether they have conflicts.

And one council member said she's seeking a further legal opinion on whether a conflict exists for Mr. Merke.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hansen said yesterday he'll propose at the Oct. 22 council meeting that last week's 5-4 vote to allow Mr. Merke to vote on the golf course issue be rescinded.

Then he'll ask the council to reconsider the issue and vote again, a move expected to produce a deadlock since the eight other council members are split on the issue.

Most of those opposing Mr. Merke's vote also have reservations about whether the proposed golf course should be approved because of financial and environmental concerns.

Several of those supporting Mr. Merke's vote on the conflict issue generally favor building the 18-hole course that would be operated by the private non-profit Columbia Association.

"We are so divided on the golf course that those who want it are very insecure about whether it will be approved," said Gail Bailey, one of the council members who contends Mr. Merke has a conflict.

"The group on the council that wants the course is desperate. It didn't matter if God himself had come down and said Joe has a conflict, they were going to vote that he has no conflict," Dr. Bailey said.

Mr. Hansen and Mr. Merke disagree.

"Those who construe this vote on Joe as a vote on the golf course are badly mistaken. I haven't made up my mind on it," Mr. Hansen said.

He joined Mr. Merke, and council members Evelyn Richardson, Charles Acquard, and Karen Kuecker in voting last week that Mr. Merke does not have a conflict.

Council members Charles Ahalt, Fran Wishnick and Norma Rose joined Dr. Bailey, voting that Mr. Merke should be barred from to voting on the golf course.

Mr. Hansen argues that in case of a tie vote, the motion to bar Mr. Merke would fail, meaning he could vote on golf course-related issues.

Mrs. Wishnick disagrees, and she has sought legal opinions from the Columbia Association staff counsel, Jeanette Pfotenhauer.

She said she's been promised a ruling before next week's council meeting.

When asked why a legal opinion hadn't been sought before last week's council session, Mr. Hansen said he thought an agreement had been reached with Dr. Bailey.

Dr. Bailey says she remembers the agreement differently. "I thought we were to get a legal opinion on the issue," she said.

Mr. Hansen termed Dr. Bailey's different recollection of the agreement "suddenly convenient."

"I probably dropped the ball. It wasn't out of malice. Remember this is the first time a conflict question has come up," Mr. Hansen said.

Mr. Merke, who represents the Village of Town Center, said that if the council rules he can't participate in votes on the proposed golf course, he'll resign his seat so that his village board can quickly appoint a replacement.

"I don't want my village to be disenfranchised from voting on the course," he said. His village board supports the golf course project, he said.

Council members Wishnick, Bailey and Rose said they may propose other changes in the conflict-of-interest policy. Among them would be establishing an independent body to evaluate possible conflicts and holding a workshop on ethics given by legal experts for council members.

"The problem with the council is it doesn't really seem to understand what a conflict is or isn't," Mrs. Rose said.

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