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Will the City of Tiffin taketh away?

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader

TIFFIN– Will it really take drastic measures like condemning church property to complete Ireland Avenue through Tiffin?
Perhaps, if the city council continues to engage in verbal sparring matches that bring more delays instead of decisions.
Then again, an answer might come as quickly as tonight.
Frustration reigned at the council’s meeting on Oct. 23, leading one member to make a hasty motion nobody was expecting– or desiring– to hear; to condemn a portion of property owned by Grace United Methodist Church at the corner of Highway 6 and Roberts Ferry Road.
The city has been working for more than six years to extend Ireland Avenue as a through-street from Interstate 80 northward past Highway 6. The council has experienced numerous delays and navigated dozens of roadblocks in trying to keep the project alive, including agreements with the Clear Creek Amana school district, Iowa Department of Transportation review processes, funding mechanisms and right-of-way negotiations with businesses and residents.
Cementing a deal with the church was the final step.
In order to extend Ireland Avenue, the church’s parking lot will have to be reworked and its handicapped-accessible entrance moved, changes the city agreed to pay for, in addition to purchasing a portion of the property for right-of-way. The city’s total payment to the church was estimated at just under $600,000, and the council was scheduled to vote on the offer Sept. 25.
But because councilors Jim Bartels, Jo Kahler and Mike Ryan are also members of Grace Methodist, councilor Royce Phillips pointed out a potential conflict of interest. Tiffin’s assistant city attorney, Crystal Raiber of Lynch, Michael and Raiber LLP, told the council in September it was her firm’s opinion no conflict existed. Council member Peggy Upton asked Raiber to send some case law examples to support the opinion, also concerned because the city was offering to pay more than fair market value for the property.
That’s where Ireland Avenue got mired down again.
Raiber sent a memo to all council members on Oct. 18 stating that, after research, there was no clear answer as to whether or not a conflict existed. Councilors who are also members of the church may vote on matters relating to a price to pay for the church, Raiber said, as long as the price is the fair market value established by an appraisal.
“The potential problem is that someone could allege a common law conflict of interest claim against the city if those members also vote to pay the church more than the appraised value of the property,” Raiber wrote. “If the citizen was successful in the lawsuit, the contract with the church would be void.”
In Raiber’s opinion, that left the council with two safe options: seek an amended appraisal or proceed to condemnation.
Last Wednesday, Oct. 23, council member Mike Ryan started the discussion by disclosing that he had spoken in front of the church congregation to make it clear he has recused himself of any financial discussions, and that he would act in the best interest of the community.
“And the best interest of the town is getting (the road) done,” Ryan said. “But I think there are some of us who want to make a big hoorah about nothing and it’s going to delay this project interminably and there is no sense in it. It just needs to be done.”
But Upton said the attorney’s opinion made the issue even murkier for her.
“Is there not a way to circumvent this problem without having to listen to a tirade from Mike (Ryan) about how he doesn’t have a conflict of interest? Because quite frankly, whether you say you have one or not, it could be perceived that there is one. And the fact of the matter is, we are offering the church more than the market value to get this project done,” Upton said. “Is there not another way to get around this issue?”
Raiber repeated her firm’s opinion.
“The only uncreative ways we could think of is either condemnation or going back to the appraiser,” Raiber said. “That’s the most conservative route to protect the city.”
Upton suggested seeking a review of the appraisal, but Mayor Steve Berner warned it could cause another significant delay.
Upton wasn’t moved. “While the delay is unfortunate, doesn’t hold a candle to the delays we’ve encountered so far, and I think we (need to) get it right.”
After more forceful discussion that brought no resolution, Ryan moved to accept the offer between the church and the city.
That’s when council member Jim Bartels abstained from the vote.
“I have been on the church board of trustees,” Bartels said. “I resigned because of this, but it hasn’t done any good.”
So after a history of contentious discussions, tabled action, repeated work sessions and delayed decisions on Ireland Avenue, Ryan’s motion ended in yet another hung jury, on a two-two vote, with Phillips and Upton voting against it. Phillips said he thought the church’s counteroffer was excessive; Upton reiterated she was concerned about the cost being well above market value.
“People think the church is getting all this grandeur from city money,” said Upton. “All we are required to pay for is the ground for the project. There is a difference there of $500,000. That’s a lot of money.”
Ryan wasted no time after his motion failed.
“What’s the fastest way to get the road?” Ryan asked Reiber.
“Condemnation,” Raiber replied.
Ryan moved to proceed with condemnation, and this time, Bartels voted yes, resulting in a 3-2 vote, with Ryan, Bartels and Kahler supporting the motion.
After the meeting, Bartels said he didn’t recuse himself from the second vote because the council wasn’t making any progress.
“We are sitting here not doing anything,” Bartels said. “I turned down my position of being a church trustee to try to beat this problem, but it didn’t help. I was just trying to get movement.”
Ryan offered a similar explanation.
“My intent from the beginning was to get Ireland Avenue completed as quickly as possible. It’s languished for years,” said Ryan. He said again he was never involved in any financial discussions or decisions on the church’s behalf. “My premise was to do what was best for the city. When that failed, the next best thing to get a street completed as quickly as possible was to move to condemnation.”
Exiting last Wednesday’s meeting on those words, it appeared that the city and the church would meet in court. The condemnation process is a complex, lengthy and expensive legal protocol laid out in Iowa Code that allows local governments to exercise eminent domain in obtaining properties needed for public projects. It is typically a last resort when two entities cannot agree on the terms of a property transfer.
Berner emphasized this was not the case between the church and the city.
“We have reached an agreement. The condemnation is not an adversarial process for us on this item,” said Berner. “It’s a way to get a decision from an unbiased body.”
Essentially, the court would determine a fair price to pay for the church right-of-way, and both entities would be bound to the court’s ruling.
But one more twist late last week made the road ahead once more uncertain.
Tiffin City Administrator Michon Jackson sought additional clarification from the Iowa League of Cities, an executive body that serves as a resource and consultant for its 870 member cities in the state.
The league’s legal counsel offered a different opinion than Raiber’s, and Jackson informed the council members via email.
“First, they believe there is no conflict of interest in any way– since there is no financial gain– from the three council people that attend the church,” Jackson wrote.
“Second, he said that condemnation is going to be more expensive than the offer to the church, plus everyone involved with the condemnation: sheriff, economic development, secretary of state, board of supervisors, etc. He also indicated we should not condemn against a willing participant and they are not refusing the restructuring of their parking lot.”
In addition, Jackson noted, a city condemning a church property would be a public relations nightmare.
In her email, Jackson laid out the council’s new options: withdraw the motion to condemn; continue with the condemnation procedure; or obtain a second appraisal to allay concerns about the cost agreement.
“Since it was openly disclosed that we have three council people who are members of that church, we have met our obligation,” Jackson wrote.
Jackson said Friday she anticipated putting the item back on the council’s agenda at its special meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 30). The meeting is open to the public.
“Of course it is up to council ultimately,” Jackson said, “but there really should be no issues on voting moving forward.”