Jim Dey: Opinions differ on recusal

Jim Dey: Opinions differ on recusal

If members of the public had any concerns about the ethics of a recent vote by a local park board member, it wasn't apparent in Tuesday's election.

Finishing second in a three-candidate race for two open Champaign Park Board seats, incumbent Jane Solon-Wetmore collected 5,059 votes to finish well ahead of third-place finisher Brent West's 3,933 and just behind Craig Hays' 5,461.

Despite that, the issue that gave rise to the ethics concern remains unresolved because voters overwhelmingly rejected north Champaign farmland as a proposed site for a new Central High School. Forty of the 80 acres of land where the school was to be located were sold to the school district by Solon-Wetmore's employer, The Atkins Group.

Now that the site has been rejected by voters — at least for now and maybe forever — it will remain unused as school location and, as a consequence of the school district's contract with Atkins, may be sold back to Atkins in nine years.

Champaign schools Superintendent Judy Wiegand said Wednesday that the latest vote certainly diminished the possibility of the land as a site for a new high school, but to what extent, she declined to say.

"I don't think I want to characterize it until I work with the new school board," said Wiegand, who saw five new members elected to the seven-member board.

The north Champaign site was the subject of considerable controversy ever since it was selected for the new high school. Voters narrowly rejected a $149 million-plus property tax hike that included the new high school last November. On Tuesday, they rejected it by a 70 to 30 percent margin.

School administrators and board members recognized the site's unpopularity, so they explored alternative options between the votes in November and Tuesday.

One included a proposed land swap with the Champaign Park District. Under the plan, Unit 4 would have traded land it owns for 40 acres of park district land at Dodds Park on North Mattis Avenue, near Parkland College.

Four votes were needed to approve the deal. Solon-Wetmore was among three park board members who voted to reject the land swap, leaving the school board with the unpopular north Champaign site. She has emphatically rejected suggestions that, because she is employed by Atkins, she had a conflict that should have prompted her to abstain. A park district lawyer issued an opinion that concluded she had no conflict that would "legally inhibit her from voting upon a request by the school district to acquire a portion of Dodds Park."

"The subject matter of the request came from another public body, the school district. Accordingly, no conflict of interest existed. Thus, there was no reason for Commissioner Solon-Wetmore to recuse herself from voting," said park district lawyer Guy Hall.

But it's not as simple as that, and opinions differ on the issue of recusal.

Under Illinois law, a conflict of interest requiring recusal involves a public official with a financial stake in the outcome of official action. A public official with a financial interest at stake is barred by law from participating under threat of prosecution.

Clearly, Solon-Wetmore had no personal financial stake in the land swap decision.

But University of Illinois law professor Patrick Keenan, who teaches ethics, said lesser conflicts also can be grounds for recusal.

They include issues that either pose a threat to the official's independent judgment or raise questions in the public mind about the integrity of an official action.

Solon-Wetmore's employer, The Atkins Group, has a strong financial interest in seeing the land it sold to Unit 4 become a site for a new school.

That's why, according to a memorandum prepared by school district lawyer Mike Tague, the company "agreed to reduce its exclusive offer to Unit 4 to $41,000 per acre if Unit 4 agrees to use restrictions to bind Unit 4 to keep its commitment to build a school."

"Because The Atkins Group was selling a 40-acre parcel of land in the middle of its larger mixed use development, the firm wanted the ability and option to repurchase the property ... in the event no school was built," Tague's memo states.

The purchase agreement gave the school district 10 years to develop the site as a school.

So when Unit 4 proposed the swap for Dodds Park land, it carried with it the presumption that the land Atkins wanted to be used for a school would be eliminated from consideration. By being one of those who opposed the land swap, Solon-Wetmore ensured that the Atkins land would remain the sole option for a new Central.

While not an illegal conflict of interest subject to prosecution, retired assistant Champaign city attorney Trisha Crowley said, it's a matter of appearances.

"If it's not a legal conflict ... then you're dealing with public relations," said Crowley, who added that many people prefer to avoid issues like that.

"(Appearances) are important to people, particularly with a case like this, where everything is out in the open."

Keenan said the problem in the public's mind is that "she could be making a decision that is for the public good or good for her employer."

In that case, no one but a mind-reader would know her motivation.

"On balance, she should have recused herself. But this is a relatively small sin," Keenan said.

But Champaign city attorney Fred Stavins defended Solon-Wetmore's decision, characterizing the impact of her vote on Atkins' interests too remote to be worrisome.

"In my mind, it would have to be a lot more direct than that," he said, referring to Atkins' interest in a school site.

But Stavins said he routinely counsels city council members who are concerned about conflicts and appearances to look at the issue from a perspective other than their own.

"I always ask council members, 'Would you feel comfortable reading about it in the newspaper?'" he said.

Neither Solon-Wetmore nor her friends have been pleased to read about the issue. She characterized The News-Gazette's published concerns about her decision to vote as a "hatchet job" and friends have written letters defending her integrity, noting she is a fine person who is president of a local Rotary Club.

No testimonial or club membership can cleanse a public official of suspicion of divided loyalty, although winning re-election does ease the sting of those who have second-guessed Solon-Wetmore's ethical judgment.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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rsp wrote on April 09, 2015 at 9:04 am

If the property was restricted to the school district building a school there, how could they legally trade it to someone else without violating their purchase agreement?

pattsi wrote on April 09, 2015 at 9:04 am

Perception is the KEY variable. This was an issue at the county board during the organzation of the new board. No financial interest involved, but perception of the situation drove the decision. Because we are a small, isolated community, this makes it hard to be involved at times. Similar issues may see the light of day with some of the recently elected Unit 4 school board members.