Columbia councilman resigns Conflict of interest dispute led to move

October 23, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Columbia Council member Joseph P. Merke resigned last night, saying he could no longer serve because his integrity had been "tainted" by questions raised over a possible conflict of interest.

The resignation stunned the council. One member sat with her face buried in her hand, while others' faces appeared ashen as Mr. Merke announced his resignation.

"The results of one evening's meeting have unfortunately tainted the [Columbia] association, the council, the budget process, and my integrity. These events will undoubtedly cause future problems unless laid to rest," Mr. Merke said in his brief resignation statement.

He said his resignation would take effect immediately after last night's council session. He said he had informed the village board he represents on the council -- Towne Center -- that he would resign and asked the board to nominate a successor at its Nov. 17 meeting.

The resignation is the culmination of a feud on the council over whether Mr. Merke should have participated in an Oct. 8 vote on whether he should be barred from voting on the proposed golf course. The surprise statement came after the council voted 5-0, with three abstentions, to rescind a 5-4 vote taken Oct. 8 in which the council ruled that Mr. Merke would not have a conflict of interest in voting on the golf course.

The proposed $5.5 million Fairway Hills Golf Course would abut Mr. Merke's home in the Village of Town Center.

Mr. Merke voted with the majority on Oct. 8, but did not participate in last night's vote.

Last night's motion to rescind the Oct. 8 vote was the result of an opinion by the Columbia Association staff lawyer that Mr. Merke should not have participated in the vote on the question of whether he has a conflict of interest.

Mr. Merke's resignation triggered an impassioned statement from Council Chairman John Hansen.

He said he had been outraged by some council members' contentions that those who voted that Mr. Merke had no conflict of interest did so to ensure that the golf course proposal is approved by the council.

The council will take up that proposal in the coming months as it completes a long-range plan and the 1993 budget.

"If there has been any character assassination, it's come in the press from those council members who wrap themselves in sanctimony and piety," snapped Mr. Hansen. He was among those who voted on Oct. 8 that Mr. Merke would not have a conflict on the golf course issue.

The chairman termed Mr. Merke's loss from the council "extremely regrettable."

nTC Mr. Hansen also said the dissension over Mr. Merke's situation had convinced him that he should "no longer be silent" when the council's, or his own integrity, is questioned by critics on the council.

"I have remained silent in the past. I intend no longer to remain silent on these issues. I will speak out at council meetings and in the press. I want it to stop," he said.

Council member Gail Bailey, who had voted that Mr. Merke would have a conflict in participating in the golf course issue, was among the council members who had expressed dismay that Mr. Merke had participated in the Oct. 8 vote. She had argued after the vote that supporters of the golf course on the council wanted Mr. Merke's vote on the issue to ensure the course is approved.

After Mr. Hansen's statement, Dr. Bailey said she thought the council needs to work at being more open-minded toward those who have opposing opinions.

"Physician, heal thyself," retorted Mr. Hansen.

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