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Civic Skinny

The Conlins and windows. Branstad and Dwolla.

2/6/2013

skinnyWhen the rich and the powerful get pissed off (continued):

When last we left the great vinyl-window-vs.-wood-window dispute, James and Roxanne Conlin had hired Doug Gross — yeah, that’s pretty interesting in itself — to sue the City of Des Moines over the weighty issue of whether the Conlins can replace 10 deteriorated wood windows with vinyl windows in an unhistoric rental property they own in historic Sherman Hill.

The difference in price is about $6,000.

The Conlins say that you can’t tell the difference between wood and vinyl windows, that the vinyl windows meet the guidelines for historic preservation (and, anyway, they say, the seven-unit, 125-year-old apartment house that is assessed at $125,000 has “no historical, cultural, or architectural value”), that the city’s Historic Preservation Commission not only doesn’t know what it’s doing but also has some members on it whose terms have expired.

What’s more, they say, the commission has a “personal animus” against the Conlins, which means the commission doesn’t like them. Indeed, the latest court papers say the commission has “an improper bias toward the Conlins,” though they probably mean an improper bias against them. The Conlins say this is because they are rich and famous — or, in the words of the court papers, because of their “identity, stature and financial means.” The Conlins live in Southern Hills in a 17-room, 7,268-square-foot house assessed at $1,916,700.

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Roxanne Conlin, who is 68 years old, is an enormously successful trial lawyer, and James Conlin, 72, is an apparently-enormously-successful developer. Roxanne Conlin, a Democrat, has run for the United States Senate and for governor of the state. She lost both races. The Conlins’ lawyer, the equally enormously successful Doug Gross, ran for governor as a Republican (he also lost) and is as well-connected in Republican circles as she is in Democratic circles.

Anyway, this all started on Sept. 7, 2011, when city inspectors told the Conlins the windows had to be repaired or replaced within 28 days. (The place was inspected because the rents are subsidized by a federal program that requires, among other things, that the windows be safe and good. The federal rules don’t mandate wood windows. The wood-vinyl question arose because the house is in a historic district.) One thing led to another, and ultimately the Conlins filed a 21-page suit against the city in Polk County District Court. The city got the case moved to federal district court and then moved to dismiss. Last week, the Conlins filed a 21-page resistance to the motion to dismiss, though they withdrew three of the seven counts in their suit.                

The latest filing cites 29 lawsuits from across the country (including the wonderfully named Little Gem Sciences LLC v. Orphan Med. Inc.), all kinds of city ordinances, Department of Interior guidelines, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as the Constitution of the United States, and is sprinkled with “due process” and “equal protection” and “arbitrary and capricious.”                

The filing is signed by four attorneys at Brown, Winick, Graves, Gross, Baskerville and Schoenebaum, Doug Gross’ law firm. Gary Goudelock, Jr., an assistant city attorney, is representing Des Moines.                

This is, as we said, about $6,000. …                

Make sure your mute button is working.                

The big winners from last week’s announcement that Tom Harkin won’t seek a sixth term in the United State Senate are Iowa’s TV stations — especially the ones in Des Moines, says a note from a Skinny reader who always looks on the dark side of things.                

Think about it, he says. In 2014, we’ll have the costliest-ever Senate race as Republicans try to grab what was considered a sure seat for the Democrats. And, depending on how things play out, we could have races for open seats in three of the state’s four Congressional districts. And, of course, we’ll have a gubernatorial race, assuming the Democrats can find someone to run against Terry Branstad.                

It’s all but certain Rep. Bruce Braley will seek the Democratic Senate nomination, but he could have a primary fight. (Look for someone from Dubuque to pop up, Skinny said last week, and sure enough Pat Murphy said he might run.) Most folks believe that either Rep. Tom Latham or Rep. Steve King will seek the Republican nomination — and they may go at one another in a primary, which would open the Third District, where Democrats probably could retake the seat, and the Fourth District, where there’s no chance a Democrat could win.                

Iowa’s congressional districts were redrawn for last year’s election, and all now have chunks that are in the Des Moines TV market. “The big loser — TV viewers,” says the Skinny reader. He adds, “2014 will make 2012 look like a slumber party pillow fight.”               

Perhaps. Skinny has not been to a slumber party for a couple of years. …                

Gov. Branstad held a press conference last month “in which he recognized Dwolla as a ‘great Iowa company,’ ” says a note from a Cityview reader.                

“True statement. What didn’t make the press release is that if he had his way earlier, Dwolla may never have gotten off the ground… because Gov. Branstad helped kill the state program that helped attract seed capital for Dwolla and other Iowa based startups. Just a couple months before issuing his praise of Dwolla, the Governor’s staff negotiated an end to the Iowa Fund of Funds. Why? The best justification they could give when asked was that it was ‘created by a Democrat.’ ”                

While it’s true the program did start under Democrat Gov. Tom Vilsack, this guy says, the Fund of Funds was the brainchild of the Republican legislature. “Vilsack agreed to it as part of a package deal to get his venture-capital program,” he says. The Fund of Funds invested in Village Ventures, a New York venture firm that then made a major investment in Iowa-based start-up Dwolla — “a perfect example of how the Fund of Funds was designed to work.”                

“Seems it was a little too complicated for some to understand or too successful to let credit go to a Democrat. Either way, the state loses out on another couple decades of Iowa start-ups like Dwolla.” …               

And for the record: There has been a net gain of 24,400 jobs in Iowa since Terry Branstad took office two years ago. At the time, he promised to create 200,000 jobs over five years. He has 175,600 to go, in case you’re keeping track. CV

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