Consensus: No conflict on park project

Officials: Owning private property in vicinity is not a problem

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COEUR d'ALENE - Owning adjacent property doesn't constitute a conflict of interest on the McEuen Field redevelopment project, officials said this week.

Several people helping craft the conceptual plan aimed at overhauling the downtown 15-acre park have or had ties to property or businesses near McEuen Field.

But private property close to the park doesn't constitute a violation of Idaho conflict codes, legal advisers said, so recusing themselves from their official capacities as the plan moves forward isn't necessary.

"That's just not a connection that is recognized as a violation of Idaho statute," said City Attorney Mike Gridley. "Clearly under Idaho law it has to be something more direct, more tangible."

Questions about how much direct benefit those property owners would receive as a result of an enhanced park came up as the park plan, unveiled in January, moved through the public process.

But those people wouldn't benefit any more or less than the entire area, they said. Any action on the plan wouldn't be a direct pecuniary benefit to them, thereby nullifying any conflict of interest claims as defined by Idaho Code 59-703, they said.

That code defines a conflict of interest as when an official takes action on an item and the result yields the official "the private pecuniary benefit of the person," family, household or business.

A pecuniary benefit is directly tied to money.

Having interests close to McEuen Field doesn't qualify under that statute, Gridley and Lake City Development Corp. legal adviser Danielle Quade said.

Idaho code 59-703 exempts any conflict of interest charge against an official when the benefit also benefits an entire "business, industry, occupation or class."

The goal of the park project, which would all be public property, is to enhance the downtown for citizens, visitors and businesses alike.

Ranging from a footprint to a fully built-out park, price estimates range from $15 million to nearly $40 million.

The City Council will have the final vote whether to adopt the park's conceptual plan and will consider that proposal Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Woodland Middle School.

None of the six council members owns property downtown, although Mayor Sandi Bloem does.

Bloem's family owns the building which holds her business, Johannes & Co. Jewelers, 406 E. Sherman Ave., a block north of the park. The business has been in the family for around 95 years, and the building, which houses three stores and upstairs offices, has been owned for at least 50 years, she said.

The conceptual plan includes a roughly $343,400 to $404,000 pedestrian only, reconstructed Fourth Street, from Front to Sherman avenues, near the building.

Bloem said she didn't think there was a conflict of interest, but inquired through the city's legal department just in case. The department said improvements to a nearby public street did not constitute a conflict.

Bloem, who helped put together the 21-member McEuen Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee that helped advise on the plan, would only be called upon to vote on the plan as a tie-breaker should the council's vote split.

When forming the committee, the city included neighbors and businesses near the park as a way to gain input from a variety of people who could be affected. The official decision still comes down to the City Council.

Lake City Development Corp. - an eight-member urban renewal board - could vote later to fund a portion of the McEuen Field project should the plan go through.

One of its board members, Brad Jordan, is a part owner of the Java building at 324 E. Sherman Ave. since 1982.

That building sits across Fourth Street from the mayor's.

Urban renewal code states members can't acquire property in specific urban renewal projects, while the McEuen Park plan would take place on public property.

"I think if I have a real conflict, a perceived conflict, I'd step back from it but right now the legal advice is I don't have a conflict," Jordan said.

He said on a personal level he's not sold on closing Fourth Street to pedestrian-only traffic as a boon for business.

"I'm no different than anybody else," he said. "There are things about the McEuen plan that I like and some things that I'm not so excited about."

LCDC board member Jim Elder used to own Cricket's Bar and Grill on Sherman Avenue before he sold it in April. As one who has served on the LCDC board and the city's parking commission, Elder was appointed one of the steering committee members. Elder never owned the property on which his former business sat. He too said he didn't feel conflicted and that had he wanted to benefit economically from the park he could have held on to the business.

City Councilman Mike Kennedy addressed the topic of property ownership last month when he spoke at a North Idaho Pachyderm Club meeting, and again following a citizens meeting hosted by activist Mary Souza on the topic.

Kennedy is president of Intermax Network. Intermax partner Steve Meyer is business partners with former LCDC board member Charlie Nipp in a separate business, and Nipp owns property on Front Avenue near the park. Kennedy said a conflict of interest doesn't exist.

"That has no connection to property owners down by the park or anything else so I welcome the discussion," he said at the time, a stance he reiterated this week.

John Barlow, a Hagadone Corp. executive and developer, said he served on the steering committee as a private citizen, and not as a Hagadone Corp. employee. Until last week, Barlow said, company CEO Duane Hagadone, wintering in California, had never even seen the park renderings.

"The point that needs to be made is this is a small town," Barlow said. "If you really want to play games it's hard to say anybody doesn't have a conflict. Everybody has an aunt or uncle or brother who works downtown; does that mean they have a conflict?"

The conceptual plan's designers, Team McEuen, includes designers from Miller-Stauffer Architects. Miller-Stauffer owns the Parkside Tower and McEuen Terrace condo buildings on Front Avenue across the street from the park. They've owned that land since 1993, before the 1997 inception of LCDC.

Dick Stauffer, of Team McEuen and Miller-Stauffer, said the designers - who were selected from a competitive bid process - were acting on a community dream to enhance the public waterfront park that has been repeatedly studied and identified as a key to downtown's economic vitality before the team was selected.

"We've been brought on to exercise the idea," he said. "We didn't develop the concept."

He said the business owns the retail and commercial space in the buildings, while the condo units are owned by individual owners. Around 85 percent of the 53 units in Parkside Tower are sold and all of the 22 McEuen Terrace units have owners.

He said raising a conflict question was grasping for straws in a politically-charged, highly debated local topic.

Julie Clark, co-founder of Friends of McEuen - a citizen group which opposes large scale changes to the park - also said she isn't trying to scale down the project for personal reasons.

Part of the plan calls for enhancements to Tubbs Hill, including an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant walking trail along the north side of the hill. Clark is one of several homeowners who lives on Tubbs Hill's Pine Avenue, referred to as Tubbs Hill Drive.

She also sits on the Tubbs Hill Foundation, and denied her opposition is a "not in my backyard" approach. Improvements, rather, would likely boost her property value.

"I'm all for improvements, but the fault I find is with the process," she said. "I feel it's excluded public input."

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