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A conflict of interest with developer deal?

Alderman abstains on issue, but later votes

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

MORRISON – When the Morrison City Council considered a deal with a developer last month, Alderman Curt Bender abstained from two votes on the issue, apparently with the belief that he had a conflict of interest. 

Two weeks later, though, he voted in favor of the developer in a follow-up issue.

Why the change?

Bender is part owner of Willett, Hofmann & Associates, a Dixon-based engineering and architectural firm that has done work on developer Bob Vaughn’s project.

Bender said the city’s attorney, Tim Zollinger, told him he thought it would be a conflict of interest if Bender voted on giving free utilities for Vaughn’s properties in exchange for the developer’s improvements to a sidewalk. 

“After reflecting, he decided it wouldn’t be a conflict,” Bender said. 

The alderman said he separates his business from city issues. 

“It wasn’t a matter of this being a client or not being a client,” Bender said. 

Zollinger said he changed his view after reflection.

“I am of the opinion that a conflict didn’t exist that required him to abstain,” the attorney said. “There was no contract between the city and Willett Hofmann. The issue was Mr. Vaughn and his property.”

David Morrison, deputy director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said it appears Bender had a conflict of interest, “but it’s not fatal.”

“Does his incremental financial benefit have an effect on his overall attitude toward the project?” Morrison said. “You have to take this project in the context of what would have happened if the conflict wasn’t there. Would it have had the same outcome? Does your conflict change your overall attitude, where other people wouldn’t share that perspective? There is definitely smoke, but not a fire.”

He said conflicts of interest are “tricky,” but not as “cut and dried” as people think.

In late August, a divided council approved two ordinances. One gave ownership of the crumbling sidewalk in the 200 block of West Market Street to Vaughn so that he could improve it and make it handicapped-accessible. 

The other ordinance, in return, would grant Vaughn free water and sewer for 10 years at the properties.

His buildings face Main Street, but he said he was unable to provide access to the disabled from that side.

Last week, the council voted 6-3 for the sidewalk plan. But officials are questioning whether that vote needed a simple or a three-fourths majority. As it was, two-thirds, including Mayor Everett Pannier, voted for it.

If the measure fails to pass, the whole deal will likely fall through.

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