Cedar Rapids ethics board’s tight focus quashes 2 complaints

Complaints against Mayor Ron Corbett and City Attorney Jim Flitz lack specific facts, official says

Rick Smith
Published: December 22 2013 | 8:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:11 am in
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Two complaints to the city’s Board of Ethics from unsuccessful City Council candidate Robin Kash quickly were dismissed on Friday by the board.

Kash had submitted his inquiries as formal ethical complaints to the ethics board, and the board’s chairman, retired federal prosecutor Bob Teig, said Kash’s complaints against Mayor Ron Corbett and City Attorney Jim Flitz lacked specific facts to make a case of an ethical violation under the city’s ethics ordinance.

Board members Bill Vincent, Sister Susan O’Connor and Charity Tyler agreed with Teig.

The board’s complaints aside, Kash seemed to be seeking some discussion from the ethics board — the only local ethics board in Iowa — about the appropriateness of the board being advised by the City Attorney’s Office when that office advises and would defend City Council members and other city officials if an ethical complaint is brought against one of them.

At one point in the Friday meeting, Teig said the board makes its own decisions and does not rely on the City Attorney’s Office.

Kash’s other question related to a local development project in which the City Council on a split vote in November provided economic incentives for a new warehouse development being built in hopes of attracting tenants.

The incentives were approved for the project even though the City Council did not make public the names of the project’s investors, a not-uncommon practice at City Hall.

City staff members have said in the past that the project gets incentives, not the owners or investors.

However, Kash wanted to know how the public is to know if a City Council member or other city official had a potential ethical conflict on the warehouse project if the public doesn’t know who is involved in the project.

Asked about the general theme of Kash’s complaint to the board after the board adjourned its meeting on Friday, Teig said the board’s mission is narrow and does not include making policy for city government.

Even so, Teig, who was appointed to the five-member ethics board in July, asked the board on Friday to consider working on some amendments to the current city ethics ordinance, and he got push back from veteran board members Vincent and O’Connor about any plan to expand the current "scope" of the board’s job.

Teig noted that the city’s Municipal Code defines additional city positions, such as auditor and public works director, as city "officials," though those two city positions are not included as ones that fall under the board’s ethical rules under the city’s current ethics ordinance, which was authored by the ethics board.

Teig said the auditor and public works director are responsible for city funds, but Vincent was unconvinced.

Ethical issues for most city employees are the responsibility of the city manager. The city’s ethics board handles complaints against the elected City Council, the five top city employees appointed by the council and scores of citizen appointees to city boards and commissions.

Teig suggested that the board consider taking steps against Kash for "wrongful use" of the board’s complaint procedure, which is allowed under the city’s ethics ordinance. However, Vincent and O’Connor quickly dismissed the suggestion, saying Kash had not acted in a "grossly negligent manner" as required for wrongful use of the ethics ordinance.

Nonetheless, Teig said he will inform Kash via letter that the ethics complaint process must come with a description of the facts of an allegation of an ethics violation  and should not be used as a "fishing expedition."

Kash, a retired Presbyterian minister who operates a video news service called Neighborhood Network News, was defeated Nov. 5 in the race for the City Council’s District 3 seat by incumbent Pat Shey.

Kash was on hand Friday with his video cameras as the ethics board tossed out his complaints.

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