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Civic Skinny

What’s in the legal memo advising Hensley on housing vote?

12/16/2015

If a city council person thought she might have a conflict of interests on a coming vote on a controversial issue, and if she asked the city lawyer for an opinion, and if he gave her an opinion that said she could vote on the issue, and if she did vote and her vote tipped the balance on a four-to-three tally, and if after the fact she was indeed accused of having a conflict, you’d think that the councilwoman would be waving that legal opinion around.

But Chris Hensley, who may or may not benefit from her vote on a tax-abatement issue for developers of low-cost housing, won’t disclose the letter, even though she’s taking quite a bit of grief, and neither will city attorney Jeffrey Lester.

He says the opinion is confidential attorney-client communication not subject to the Iowa open-records law. She says he has advised her that she cannot send a copy of it to anyone, though Lester has provided copies to fellow council members and other copies seem to be floating around City Hall.

But Hensley does say that the city’s legal department “and leading outside counsel agree” that “there was no legal conflict with the Iowa code or city code or Iowa common law” that would bar her from voting. So, “I was able to vote with no conflict.”

Still, if the letter is clear-cut in saying there’s no conflict when Hensley votes on issues involving tax abatement for low-income housing developers even though she is a director and paid consultant at Midwest Housing Equity Group, an Omaha-based firm that syndicates and sells tax credits from such developers, then you’d think she’d move to waive the confidentiality or find some other way to get the letter out.

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Unless, of course, the letter is heavily hedged, saying that based on the information she has supplied there is no technical conflict but there might be “an appearance of a conflict” or “the potential for a conflict.”

Unless it says something like “if you wish to avoid the appearance of a conflict then the recommendation is you abstain from voting.”

And unless it says something like “it could reasonably appear to the public that you have an incentive to vote for any project brought by such developers,” or, “If you want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety we recommend you abstain from discussing or voting on matters.”

And it might say things like that.

Indeed, Hensley says the “opinion does acknowledge that there was an arguable appearance of impropriety, but I understand that would not be a legal bar to voting.” So, she says, she voted.

Hensley was paid $67,333 by Midwest Housing in 2013, the latest year for which tax returns are publicly available. At the time, she was a director and interim executive vice president.

Sportswriter Randy Peterson’s tweet after his leg was fractured following the Iowa-Iowa State basketball game in Ames last week.

Sportswriter Randy Peterson’s tweet after his leg was fractured following the Iowa-Iowa State basketball game in Ames last week.

All told, Midwest Housing Equity has bundled into nine Iowa funds the credits from 69 projects in the state. At least eight of those were projects developed by James Conlin’s firm, which has projects that would be affected if the City Council changed its rules — as it tried to do the other night but failed on that 4-to-3 vote.

At any rate, the vote was divisive. The council called Paris late in the French night so Mayor Frank Cownie could weigh in with the majority. And councilman Bill Gray, who at first opposed the measure, changed his mind to provide one of the four votes. The split has caused a lot of ill feelings among some council people that are spreading to other issues. It’s unclear who can patch things back together. …

The rest of the story: Thursday was Des Moines Register sportswriter Rick Brown’s final day at the newspaper. After 37 years, he had taken a buyout, and he wrote a lovely farewell column over the weekend. What he didn’t say, though, was that after covering the University of Iowa for many years he really hoped to be kept on to cover the Rose Bowl. But Gannett, which had given him a couple of extensions so he could finish covering Iowa for the regular season, refused to let him stay on another three weeks to cover Iowa’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 25 years. …

Around $300,000 was raised at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser held by the Bill Knapps and the Jerry Crawfords at the Knapp home in Van Meter last week. That’s the most ever raised at a Democratic fundraiser in Iowa, Crawford said. The second-biggest event: A Knapp-held function at the State Fair in 2007. The guests paid $2,700 each last week to see and hear Clinton. Among those seen at the event: Republican Gary Kirke. …

Mary Bryson, who died the other day at 103, was a sweet lady who was a longtime Register writer, wife of one Bill Bryson and mother of another. In the early 1940s, she was patient with a little kid running around the newsroom; in the early 2000s, she was kind to a 100-year-old former colleague shopping at Dahl’s. CV

Comment: The ‘Y’ site

The loveliest buildings in Des Moines fit effortlessly into their surroundings.

The Saarinen and Pei buildings at the Art Center are art themselves. The refurbished downtown library, now the home of the World Food Prize, sits almost majestically among the manicured lawns and gardens on the riverfront plot. The new library is like a coffee-table book, handsome and inviting as it spreads out across its grounds. The planned Krause headquarters by Renzo Piano on Grand Avenue promises to be almost an extension of the magnificent sculpture garden across the street.

And the government buildings along both sides of the Des Moines River are solid reminders of the city’s past and functional — and sometimes elegant — places of official business for the city’s present.

None of these is tall and overbearing. None looms over its neighbors or its neighborhood. None is out of place.

The city’s fathers — and the bureaucrats who influence them so easily — should step back and take a look at these gems. And then ask themselves: Do we really want to force whoever buys the old YMCA site on the river to build a building taller than the zoning laws call for. Why?

These folks want an “iconic” building on that great site, they say.

But iconic doesn’t mean tall.

Indeed, look at the tall buildings around town. The tallest, 801 Grand, looks like it was intended for Chicago but got plopped down accidentally in Des Moines, where from miles away it resembles a lone silo — or perhaps an orange-juice squeezer — out of scale and off in the horizon. The EMC building, nice as it is, is mostly noted for having a side that looks like a vodka bottle. The Financial Center is an ordinary box that now is lit up garishly, and sometimes ghoulishly, at night. The Marriott Hotel, with its skywalk hanging over the sidewalk, was squeezed into a site way too small. Only the old Equitable Building, with its gothic grandeur, has real character.

No icons there.

The Hubbell interests, who have an option to buy the site of the old Y, had proposed a low-rise building with apartments looking over the river. It met the zoning laws, and it would have required no more than the usual city subsidies and tax breaks for downtown buildings. But the city said no, build higher.

A five-story building would blend into the row of buildings bordering the river walk, would keep open the sight lines from downtown to the state capitol — which truly is iconic — and in the hands of a good architect would be a worthy neighbor to the historic World Food Prize headquarters.

A taller building would break the zoning laws — which doesn’t seem to bother city officials — and would require far more tax breaks and other subsidies from a city that is hard-pressed financially. Casting an evening shadow over the riverwalk, it could all but smother the freshness and openness that now define the pathways for hikers and bikers.

You don’t just order up an icon. You build a building or a bridge or a park, and you hope the people accept it and, eventually, embrace it. You hope it becomes a focal point for a neighborhood, or a town, a place to gather, perhaps, to contemplate or to point to with pride. But, ultimately, the people decide what is iconic. The Pappajohn Sculpture Gardens could someday be iconic, or maybe the World Food Prize building. But a building disrupting the smooth lines along the riverbank?

Not likely to be iconic.

More likely to stick out like a sore thumb. CV

— Michael Gartner

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