Ethics requires that a Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission member should have abstained last week from voting on a controversial commercial rezoning issue, an officer from the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods said Saturday.
For that reason, LAN believes the 5-4 vote the planning commission took to approve the Nieder Acres rezoning should be considered as a 4-4 tie, said Arthur (Trip) Anderson, LAN vice chairman.
Anderson said he will make that argument when the rezoning issue comes before the Lawrence City Commission on Sept. 28.
On Wednesday, the planning commission approved rezoning about 28.5 acres west of Iowa Street between 31st and 33rd streets from residential and agricultural uses to a planned commercial development.
Target Inc. wants to build a 117,000-square-foot department store on about 10 acres of the site and is expected to present a preliminary development plan for the store to the planning commission in October.
During last week's planning commission meeting, Commissioner Dennis Snodgrass, an agent for McGrew Real Estate, which is handling the sale of the property for a Target department store, was questioned about whether his vote would constitute a conflict of interest.
Snodgrass, who owns some stock in the real estate agency but is not personally involved as an agent in the Target deal, said he had checked with his attorney about the issue and found he had met the legal requirements of state conflict of interest laws.
However, Anderson, a local attorney, said the issue is more ethical than legal.
"I'm not saying that Mr. Snodgrass broke the law or even came close to breaking the law. I just don't think he lived up to the kinds of standards we expect of our public officials," Anderson said. "In every sense of ethics, I think he failed."
Anderson said he would present his argument to the city commission at the Sept. 28 meeting.
"In the final analysis, I think it's up to society to decide whether a vote in a situation like this should count," Anderson said. "I think the city commissioners should disregard his vote, when the issue comes before them in September, so they should view it as a 4-4 tie, on that particular vote."
Dennis Prater, general counsel for the Kansas Commission on Governmental Standards and Conduct, said he gets calls about similar situations about twice a month from across the state. There are two sections of Kansas law dealing with the subject, Prater said.
One, KS 75-304, prohibits public officials from making a contract between their public agency and a business in which they hold a substantial interest. However, there are several exceptions to that rule, Prater said. One of those is that an administrative decision, such as zoning, is not a contract, so zoning decisions do not apply, he said.
Another law, KS 75-305, says if you're going to take an action that might affect a business you hold a substantial interest in, you must file a disclosure statement, which tells the public the financial interests you have, Prater said. After that statement is filed, the official can take any action he thinks is appropriate, Prater said.
Anderson said although Snodgrass did not break any laws, he still should have abstained.
"It just looks better and smells better if a person tends to make money because of a change that the person withdraws from that vote," Anderson said.
During an interview Friday, Snodgrass, who was appointed to the commission three months ago, said he realized before accepting the appointment that such issues might be raised.
Snodgrass said he hired an attorney to review his situation to see if there was anything that would prohibit him from participating. The attorney had spoken with Prater about the issue and they didn't find any legal problems, Snodgrass said.
Snodgrass also filed with the county a statement of financial interest, which identifies him as a McGrew stockholder, his shares in the company and his status as McGrew sales associate.
He also talked to Douglas County Dist. Atty. Jerry Wells about the potential of him breaking any conflict of interest laws while on the planning commission.
"He said he had no problem with it," Snodgrass said.
Also, at the first planning commission study session Snodgrass participated in, he told the other commissioners and the planning staff about his status with McGrew.
Snodgrass said that as a sales associate at McGrew, he is considered a self-employed person by the Internal Revenue Service. He handles residential, not commercial real estate. In January 1993, he became a McGrew stockholder.
Snodgrass said that as a stockholder, he would profit from McGrew's dealings, but only indirectly.
"There's not a direct relationship if X number is paid to McGrew, I, as a stockholder, am going to receive a percentage of that. It depends on the performance of the company, reinvestment, all these different things that play a part," Snodgrass said.
However, if the company took the money it made from the Target deal and paid out dividends directly from the sale, Snodgrass said he might make between $400 and $500.
"In the grand scheme of life, four or five hundred dollars for my -- I'm basically middle income -- is not a whole lot," he said.
Snodgrass said that based on his attorney's research, he met legal requirements.
"Then the question is, ethically," he said. "From the very beginning, I have said, what it comes down to is what I feel is good for the community or what is not good for the community. I will always do what I feel is good for the community."
Snodgrass said he would abstain from votes in circumstances where he personally owns a piece of property or if he personally represents someone.
"I have yet to see something come before us that I feel I cannot make a decision based on what I think is good for the community," he said.