A last-minute ethics complaint stalled Fort Collins City Council’s final decision on the rezoning of the former Hughes Stadium site, pushing the already-delayed hearing to March 17.
The complaint, filed at 3 p.m. Tuesday by Fort Collins resident Rory Heath, is the fourth ethics complaint related to council’s decision on the Hughes rezoning.
Heath argued in his complaint that Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell and Mayor pro-tem Kristin Stephens should have recused themselves from the November vote because of their employment at CSU — similar to allegations made in the previously cleared ethics complaints. He also argued council member Ken Summers had a conflict of interest in the matter because he operates a consulting firm, KGS Consulting, that advertises lobbying services online.
“There exists a consistent betrayal of the public trust vested in the elected officials and the city staff of Fort Collins,” Heath wrote in his complaint. “…The most egregious and measurable violation of this trust was evident in the actions of 3 Fort Collins City Council members, with questions surrounding why they voted against the overwhelming majority of citizens’ wishes, continually, in strong light of each council member’s obvious conflicts of interest.”
Stephens asked council to delay the Hughes second reading again on Tuesday because of the latest ethics complaint. Council chambers were packed with residents who’d planned to comment on the issue.
“There have been a lot of attacks on my character, and I’d like to resolve that before I vote,” she said. “If a decision is made without that happening, then that decision will always be in question.”
Council voted 5-2 to delay the hearing to March 17, with Troxell and Summers opposed. Summers, Troxell and Stephens deny any conflict of interest in their votes on the Hughes rezoning.
Summers wondered whether Heath’s ethics complaint was a stall tactic, and several council members questioned its timing.
“The fact that this came in at 3 o clock is very disrespectful to all of you that came out here, but I do understand wanting to clear the record before we vote on things,” council member Julie Pignataro said. “My fear is this is going to become the new norm.”
Heath said he submitted the complaint three hours before the meeting started because it took him a lot of time to prepare in between his work and personal obligations.
“With my name on it, with the reputation that comes with something like that, I wanted to make sure it was .. as sharp as it could be,” he said.
The latest delay comes a year after Colorado State University decided to sell the 165-acre Hughes site off Overland Trail to developer Lennar Homes for $10 million. Lennar wants to build at least 600 homes on the acreage, according to its contract with CSU. The plans angered many area residents who said the land should be preserved as open space or used for low-density development.
After hundreds of residents implored council to intervene, council members decided to take the lead on the site’s zoning, a step typically left to the developer. Council voted 4-3 in November to rezone the land for residential use, allowing higher density on the east side and lower density on the west side closer to the foothills.
City policy requires a second hearing for items with non-unanimous votes. Before the second reading scheduled for Nov. 19 could take place, two residents filed ethics complaints against Troxell and Stephens, alleging they should have recused themselves from the vote because they’re CSU employees and therefore had a financial and personal interest in the outcome.
Troxell asked council to push the second reading to January in light of the ethics complaints filed in November. An alternate ethics review board made up of the rest of city council decided in December that the complaints didn’t warrant investigation. City code’s narrow definition of “financial interest” makes an exception for matters that impact a city officer’s employer but lack a “foreseeable, measurable” impact on the individual. The city code definition of personal interest is so narrow that council members and city attorney Carrie Daggett struggled to come up with a hypothetical example of it at the last ethics hearing.
Troxell said the complaint Heath filed Tuesday isn’t substantive and rehashes issues that the alternate ethics review board already covered.
Heath said the aspect of his complaint against Troxell and Stephens is unique from the already-cleared complaints because his cites state statutes as well as municipal statutes. One state law Heath cited in his complaint prohibits local government officials who have a “personal or private interest in any matter proposed or pending before the governing body” from voting on those matters.
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He added that it’s unethical for council members to review ethics complaints filed against other council members.
In the part of his complaint that referenced Summers, Heath called the contents of Summers’ website “an explicit billboard for ‘pay for play’ in the political realm.”
Summers called Heath’s complaint “bogus.” He said he started his consulting company before he ran for city council and has never had a client or made money as a lobbyist.
Summers’ website describes his consulting services as “opening doors,” “providing access” and “empowering influence.” The description of services appears to reference state-level lobbying, including mentions of the state capitol, legislation and testimony on bills. Summers is a former representative in the Colorado General Assembly.
Troxell is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at CSU, and Stephens is a program assistant in the university’s Department of Statistics. Both disclosed their employment before they voted on the rezoning, and they’ve repeatedly denied any conflict of interest.
Stephens said the zoning decision won’t affect her standing at CSU because she’s a state classified employee, meaning the Colorado Legislature rather than CSU leadership mandates her salary, pension and other aspects of her employment.
Troxell said he has no involvement with the CSU system’s board of governors, which is responsible for major land sales and handles the revenue they generate. He asked the ethics review board to advise him on a similar issue in 2015, when council accepted an intergovernmental agreement with CSU for what’s now Canvas Stadium. The board advised Troxell that his employment at CSU didn’t present a conflict of interest.
Stephens,Troxell and Summers were part of the 4-3 majority that supported split zoning for the Hughes site. City staff said that zoning configuration would allow for a maximum of about 550 homes on the property. The contract between Lennar and Hughes states the deal will not go forward if Lennar doesn’t believe the city will approve zoning for at least 600 homes.
This story will be updated.
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support stories like this one with a digital subscription to the Coloradoan.
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