Friday, July 1, 2022

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Civic Skinny

James Conlin spends $100,000 on a matter of principle.


Remember James Conlin’s lawsuit against the city on the pressing issue of wood windows vs. vinyl windows?

Probably not.

But how about this: Conlin has spent $100,000 in legal fees in the suit, which concerns a $6,000 issue. So far. It’s a matter of principle, he says. “I think people should be treated fairly — including me.”

Conlin owns a rental property on 18th Street in the Sherman Hill historic district. The seven-unit building itself is of “no historical, cultural, or architectural value,” Conlin says in court papers. In the fall of 2011, the Municipal Housing Agency inspected the place and determined the wooden window frames needed replacing. Conlin ordered 10 vinyl windows and installed five before the city halted the replacement. Vinyl windows aren’t acceptable in the historic district, it said.

Conlin then went to the Historic Preservation Commission. The vinyl windows are virtually identical to wooden windows but are safer, more durable and much more energy efficient, he said. Also, he said, the commission does not have a rule against vinyl windows. Finally, he noted, for all 10 the price was $6,275 for vinyl; wood would cost about $12,000.


“We don’t allow vinyl windows in Sherman Hill,” the commission said.

There is no rule saying that, Conlin said.

Use wood, the commission said.

Conlin then appealed to the city council. The council then sent it back to the commission for further hearings.

Use wood, the commission said.

Conlin went back to the council.

Use wood, the council said.

One thing led to another, and in late 2012 Conlin sued the city in state court, though the city got the suit moved to federal district court. Conlin hired attorney Doug Gross — which is more than kind of interesting, since Gross once ran for Governor on the Republican ticket and Conlin’s wife, Roxanne, is a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has her own law firm.

Conlin’s suit alleges, among other things, that the commission is biased against the Conlins because they’re rich and well-known — or, in the words of the lawsuit, because of their “identity, stature and financial means.” The Conlins live in a $1.8 million house in Southern Hills. He also says that Jason Van Essen, the senior city planner involved in all this, “targeted him for differential treatment…[and was] mobilizing the community against Conlin…even though his role is to staff an impartial commission.”

The city denies all this, but some facts are hard to get around. Conlin’s lawyers have come up with documents showing three instances where the Historic District Commission approved the use of vinyl windows as replacements. Each time, the vote was 5 to 2. And the lawyers have found emails indicating Van Essen is being less than impartial.

One email, to Sherman Hill activists, discusses strategy with the activists for dealing with the council. In another email, Van Essen urges anti-Conlin forces to attend a council meeting and says Conlin has “spent a lot of time finding things to try to twist to spread misinformation.” “I am very concerned with how it will play out,” he wrote. And in another: “We must not lose our energy to take this up. Conlin’s M.O. is to wear the opposition down by dragging things out.”

The court threw out some of Conlin’s claims, but it didn’t throw out his allegation that he is being denied equal protection under the law. The city then asked for summary judgment, but on March 31 Magistrate Judge Helen Adams ruled that Conlin has “an actionable claim.” There are “genuine fact disputes which must be presented to, and ultimately resolved by, the fact-finder at trial,” she ruled. She added that “there are other disputed facts which suggest the Commission’s acts may have been motivated by personal animus towards Conlin.”

A trial has been set for Aug. 3.

But why spend $100,000 — it will be more by August — on a dispute over $6,000?

“Most people couldn’t afford to do this on principle,” he says.

“But I can.”

So he did. …

The Chris Godfrey case is back in the Iowa Supreme Court. Last week, the court granted Godfrey’s motion to halt all proceedings in district court while the high court considers whether Godfrey has a right to seek private claims for money damages if public officials violate the state constitution. The Supreme Court has never ruled on such an issue before.

This is the second time the Supreme Court has allowed the case to be suspended while it considered a particular issue. Godfrey won the last time. The latest acceptance by the court clearly means the case will drag on beyond this year — and will add to the bills the taxpayers are footing for private lawyers for the six government defendants.

The defendants are Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, and former state officials Teresa Wahlert, Brenna Findley, Jeff Boeyink and Tim Albrecht. Godfrey, the former head of the state’s Workers Compensation agency, had sued alleging, among other things, discrimination, extortion, harassment, retaliation and defamation after Branstad chopped his salary following Godfrey’s refusal to resign his post. Godfrey, a Democrat, had a fixed term that didn’t expire when Branstad took office.

At the time his salary was cut, he was the only openly gay member of the Branstad administration in Iowa. He resigned earlier this year and now is the chief judge and chairman of the Employees Compensation Appeals Board of the United States Department of Labor in Washington.

So far, the state has paid the LaMarca law firm $768,276.36 for defending the state officials. The state attorney general’s office is also defending them, and the government lawyers — not the LaMarca lawyers — filed the briefs opposing Godfrey’s successful interlocutory appeal of last week. …

The population of Des Moines was 209,220 in July of 2014, according to new estimates from the U.S. Departure of the Census. That’s up from 203,433 in 2010. The population includes 215 people living in Warren County; the rest live in Polk County.

Real estate: The 6,000-square-foot home at 2300 Terrace Road has just gone on the market for $1,250,000. The house, on 1.62 acres across from Terrace Hill and overlooking Des Moines, is owned by Fred and Charlotte Hubbell. They bought it in 2007 for $1,264,000 from Hubbell’s sister, Rusty Edwards. The Hubbells are said to be moving to Lincoln Place Drive — again buying a house from Rusty Edwards. The Terrace Road house is assessed at $1,150,800, but the Hubbells have protested the latest assessment.

The big, brick house at 3545 Lincoln Place long owned by Gary Kirke has sold for $915,000. The new owners are Mustafa and Lisa Sagun, and one of the first things they did was protest the 2015 assessment of $1,112,600. The 6,742-square-foot home was built in 1928 and has six bedrooms, five bathrooms, five fireplaces and a large deck. It sits on 1.8 acres. The Saguns bought the house from Franklin Cass, who bought it from Kirke in 2009 for $1,050,000. As recently as 2009 it was assessed at more than $1.5 million. Mustafa Sagun is the chief investment officer of Principal Global Equities.

The seven-bedroom, 7,800-square-foot house at 5 Greenwood Terrace is on the market for $999,000, and a four-bedroom house on 1.1 acres at 721 Foster Drive is listed at $980,000. Greenwood Terrace is a four-house cul-de-sac off 51st Street, south of Grand Avenue. The home was built in 1996 and has been owned since then by John and Ann Nesbit. Its assessed value is $941,200. The Foster Drive home, built in 1930, is owned by Bill and LuAnn Newland and is assessed at $797,500; the Newlands are said to be moving into the home recently vacated by her parents, Gov. Bob Ray and Billie Ray. …

On the market for $765,000: The 5,616-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bathroom home on 1.4 acres at 131 Tonawanda Drive. The house is owned by Mark and Ann Cernicky, who bought it in late 2005 for $560,000. It is assessed at $611,700. Cernicky is also with Principal Global Investors. …

Mayor Frank Cownie was on the practice range at Wakonda Club the other day, trying to shape up his golf game, when he was asked to leave, a guy reports. He was wearing jeans — not considered proper anywhere on the course. Jeans are allowed in the Men’s Grill, but driving golf balls there is not. …

An email from one Sherman Hill activist to another in the Conlin dispute: “If Conlin is allowed to do this, that opens an ugly can of worms…” That’s in contrast, apparently, to a pretty can of worms. …

From a Des Moines Register ad promoting food writer Jennifer Miller not long after she admitted she lied about attending a sauce-tasting event — the sauces were “delicious,” she wrote, though she wasn’t there:

“My favorite guilty pleasure is… not believing in guilt.”

Nevertheless, the newspaper announced on Tuesday that Miller had resigned. No reason was given. CV


  1. Tim says:

    I agree with Mr Conlin in his assessment that city leaders do not treat people fairly and are not impartial. I myself operate a very small real estate business and I have experienced many of the same frustrations. The one difference is I’m not wealthy and I don’t have the resources available to Mr Conlin, or the city, to deal with city leaders and city policy.
    I applaud Mr Conlin and hope he can prevail!

  2. Jessica says:

    Kind of surprised no mention has been made of that complete disaster of a column by Rekha Basu regarding the criminal justice system. Or at least one single case that went though it. She did no journalism, choosing to rely on the story of a felon when public records were available at the click of a mouse. Absolutely shameful, and editorial discretion in an opinion piece is no excuse when what are reported as fact are wholly manufactured. Not sure this was interesting to many outside the legal profession, but it certainly should be.

  3. Wayne Serbkin says:

    If he wants to use the facilities of the very exclusive Old Money Wakonda Club, then he has to abide by the club rules. Status has its price, Frank.

  4. Al Schlaf says:

    James Conlin would not know principle if it bit him on the ass.

    OTOH, how is it that the Historical Commission and the city can get all worked up over vinyl vs. wooden windows and not over the hot mess that is 692 17th Street? This eyesore has been allowed to fester for over a quarter of a century, squatting as a blight on the neighborhood.

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