Aspen City Council in conflict |

Aspen City Council in conflict

Carolyn SackariasonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN What do breakfast at the Wienerstube and an Episcopalian church in Kentucky have in common?They are two reason why Aspen City Council members have not voted on projects critical to Aspens future. With the exception of Mayor Mick Ireland, all of the City Council members have chosen to excuse themselves from voting on various land-use applications, citing conflicts of interests.And in some cases, thats left developers looking for approval from only a handful of decision-makers sometimes forcing a unanimous vote from the remaining council members.Stepping aside from the StubeThe latest recusals came from councilmen J.E. DeVilbiss and Steve Skadron on a proposal to redevelop and subdivide the Wienerstube restaurant, which is located at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Spring Street.The land-use plan, for which the owners already have approval, calls for redeveloping the property into a 47,000-square-foot complex that would house the Wienerstube restaurant for at least 10 years, the bike shop and four or five smaller affordable commercial spaces that would face the alley. The 12 affordable housing units and six free-market condos would be on the upper levels along with additional commercial and office space.The development team, which includes the projects planner, Stan Clauson, is scheduled to go before a three-person City Council on March 3 for final review.Because only three council members are able to review the project, it requires an unanimous vote in order for it to be approved, according to the city charter.Skadron recused himself because he reviewed the proposal when he was a Planning and Zoning commissioner, and voted for the project. DeVilbiss cited a conflict of interest because he is a longtime customer of the Wienerstube.I recuse myself if my impartiality can be questioned, DeVilbiss said in an interview, adding the future of the restaurant becomes a topic of conversation nearly every Saturday morning at the Wienerstubes community table where he sits. How would Stan or his client feel if I voted against it?I want to be fair so I figure, hell, Ill step aside and let the other guys handle it. Clauson said not having a full council to review the proposal puts an undue hardship on his clients in an effort to gain approval.We would much rather have a full council because its helpful to have varying opinions and not be stuck with having to have a 3-0 vote, Clauson said, adding he thinks the city charter should allow for 2-1 votes in situations when council members recuse themselves.Stepping aside on Cooper StreetSkadron also recused himself during the review of the subdivision request of the Cooper Street building, which the council shot down by a 3-1 vote last fall. As a P&Z member, Skadron voted against the Cooper Street redevelopment.The proposal had secured approval to demolish the existing three-story building and develop a four-level commercial and residential building, comprising 3,827 square feet of net leasable space divvied among the basement, first and second floors. A 2,008-square-foot free-market condo would take up the third and fourth floors.The application before the City Council was to subdivide the property so that legal interests in the building could be separated. Councilman Dwayne Romero cast the sole vote in favor the project.JS Cooper Street LLC, headed by Joshua Saslove, and a host of other LLCs controlled by such Aspen businessmen as Ron Garfield and Nikos Hecht, are suing the city and the council, arguing council members acted outside of their purview when they voted.Stepping aside from churchRomero and City Councilman Jack Johnson recused themselves from the review of the Christ Episcopal Church expansion, which the majority of the council voted in favor of in January.Romero is a member of the church and contributes to it financially. Johnson is not a member of the Aspen church, but he is an Episcopalian and remains a member of a church of the same faith in Kentucky, even though he lives here.It was enough for me to not want to show any impropriety, Johnson said of his recusal.City Council members are obligated to vote except when no member of the council shall vote on any question in which he has a substantial personal or financial interest, other than the common public interest, or on any question concerning his own conduct, and in said instances the member shall disclose this interest to the council, according to the city charter.Then there are the gray areas.Thats when you ask yourself, Do I feel impartial? Johnson said. I recuse myself when I feel so adamantly about it that it would cause a problem for the applicant.Cant skirt legalities City Attorney John Worcester said he has advised council members on their recent recusals and isnt concerned with their absences.It becomes a functionality of whether or not they can be impartial and thats a very personal thing, Worcester said. He added that when the majority of the council has a conflict of interest is when it gets interesting. That was the case during last years review of the controversial Lodge at Aspen Mountain, when whats known as the rule of necessity had to be applied. It was the first time it had to be used in the 17 years Worcester has worked for the city.Even though three of five council members had a conflict with the development proposal, they couldnt recuse themselves from reviewing the development application.According to city and state laws, all of the City Council members had to review the project to achieve a quorum.Romero, Skadron and Johnson all stated that they have conflicts of interest, leaving only Ireland and DeVilbiss to vote on the project.Romero cited a conflict of interest because he is associated with Steeplechase Partners, which serves as project managers on the Residences at The Little Nell, which Centurion Partners, the firm presenting the hotel project, was developing. Skadron had a conflict because he approved the project when he was on P&Z. Johnson lived in an apartment at the Mine Dumps that was razed to make way for the development. The hotel ultimately was shot down by the council last fall.Being fairSkadron said he doesnt believe there will be anymore land-use applications coming before the council that he had previously reviewed on P&Z.Prior to running for a City Council seat, Skadron said he was concerned that his role on the P&Z would prevent him from voting at the council level. He spoke with other politicians who have been in the same position and determined it wasnt enough of an issue not to run for a council seat.If I wasnt able to contribute to the process, I wouldnt have run, Skadron said. If I had my preference, I would like to decide on these cases.Johnson, who also is a former P&Z member, had to recuse himself from many land-use applications when he was elected as a city councilman in 2005.I had been on record that I had made up my mind, and theres an expectation from the applicant that they will get a fair hearing, he said. If I already made up my mind, how can they get a fair hearing?Worcester said there is plenty of case law that backs up that argument.If they have judged the matter once before, they can hardly be impartial a second time, he said. The purpose of a public hearing is for an impartial

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