Columbia Council tests conflict-of-interest policy


The Columbia Council clashed over a new conflict of interest policy last night, then voted narrowly to allow a member whose home abuts a proposed golf course to vote on whether the facility should be built.

At issue was whether council member Joseph Merke would be in violation of the policy -- which took effect last month -- if he is allowed to participate in votes on the proposed Fairway Hills Golf Course that could enhance the value of his property.

The 18-hole facility would cost an estimated $5.5 million and would be operated by the Columbia Association.

The association has proposed building the golf course and the council must decide in January, during the budget process, whether to approve the project. The council voted 5-4 to allow Mr. Merke to vote on the controversial project.

Mr. Merke, who represents the Village of Town Center, voted that he would not be in conflict. He had asked the council to make a ruling on the issue last night.

Supporting Mr. Merke were John Hansen, the chairman, Charles Acquard, Evelyn Richardson and Karen Kuecker. Voting against him were Norma Rose, Gail Bailey, Fran Wishnick and Charles Ahalt.

In the 30-minute debate before the vote, Ms. Rose said, "This is not about Joe's integrity. This is about preventing any possible conflict . . . or the appearance of a conflict."

She noted that the association's staff told the council and residents near the proposed golf course that if the facility is built, it could enhance property values of nearby homes.

Mr. Merke responded to arguments that he would have a clear conflict of interest if allowed to vote on the golf course by stating, "I can only gain if I sell the house. I don't intend to move. And if I stay and the course is built, I'll pay higher state and county taxes."

"When I bought the house it abutted open space and at the time it looked like the golf course was going to go through. When I bought it, there were two possibilities: either there would be open space or a golf course. I could see it as a conflict of interest if there were two possible locations for the course. I don't see the conflict."

Mr. Merke said he recently had his four-bedroom home, located at 9815 Davidge Drive in the Village of Town Center, reappraised.

At the time, he said, he asked the appraiser if his home's value would be affected if a golf course were built. "He responded there was no way of knowing until it was built."

But Mrs. Bailey and Mrs. Wishnick , who also voted against Mr. Merke, disagreed that it was unclear if Mr. Merke would gain financially if the course is approved.

Mrs. Wishnick said that argument was tough to buy in light of the fact that the Columbia Association has distributed printed matter to residents in communities near the proposed golf course stating that their property values probably would rise if the course were constructed.

And Mrs. Bailey argued that while Mr. Merke may not seek to gain by selling a home that would front on a golf course, he could obtain stronger borrowing power because of the home's increased equity value.

Mr. Acquard testily responded to Mrs. Bailey, stating, "Yes, it could be a temptation for Joe because he could tee-off on the 12th hole or his sons might inherit a golf course property. But I trust Joe. I believe he'll vote in the best interests of the entire community."

Chairman Hansen said he did not believe the issue was whether Mr. Merke would be in violation of the new policy because of a question of possible financial gain. Rather, he said, the issue was whether he would be in violation because his judgment would be impaired by the location of his home.

For that to occur, Mr. Hansen argued, Mr. Merke's situation would have to be unique to others in the community. "There must be hundreds of homes" that would be affected if a golf course is approved, said Mr. Hansen. "I just don't believe a conflict of interest exists here."

The section of the new policy Mr. Hansen referred to states, "A conflict of interest is a personal interest of a Council/Board member which tends to impair the member's independence of judgment and thereby disqualifies the member from voting upon or attempting to influence any issue or Council/Board action to which it relates."

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