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Potential conservation purchase leads to no vote from Rettig

Supervisors pass FY-19 budget with controversy

IOWA CITY– The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved the Fiscal Year 2019 budget Thursday, March 8, in a 4-1 vote with Supervisor Janelle Rettig casting a no vote and all five supervisors reading written statements. Included in the $127,174,236 budget is authorization for the Johnson County Conservation Board to use conservation bond funds for a potential acquisition of timberland and an adjacent lot with several structures in rural Johnson County.
The possibility of the purchase, and the use of closed door sessions by the conservation board to discuss it, drew the ire of Rettig, who voiced her concerns and objections during a Friday, March 2, informal meeting of the board of supervisors. Iowa City residents Caroline Dieterle and Carol deProsse also took issue and submitted a letter to the editor, which ran in the Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader newspapers.
Dieterle addressed the supervisors during public comments at the March 8 meeting.
“Johnson County is not poor in the number of places that deserve protection for one reason or another,” she said questioning the potential purchase and use of bond funds. She also took exception to the process, and the use of closed door meetings. “It seems to me it’s been done rather quickly and expeditiously and secretly, and I don’t like the idea of spending our money for that particular property.” Dieterle requested the supervisors pass the budget, minus the Conservation Bond expenditure that would go toward the property acquisition.
She reminded the supervisors of her efforts in securing passage of the bond, stating, “I don’t like the idea of peoples’ trust in the county being eroded by your spending this money on that kind of developed piece of property. It looks to me, whether or not it is, it looks like a way to bail out a person who wants to leave the county with a bucket full of money.”
Dieterle warned the supervisors that in the long run, “You poison the well for future asks by the county because people will say, ‘look what they did when they had all that money.’ I’d hate that. I’d like to have other bonds pass for environmental reasons.”
After a motion to approve the budget had been made and seconded, Rettig read a prepared statement detailing her opposition. She had also read a similar statement during an informal meeting of the board of supervisors on Friday, March 2. Rettig pointed out when the conservation bond passed in 2008, transparency and public input were promised. “With time, transparency has disappeared,” she said. “The conservation board goes into executive (closed) session almost every month and decisions are made under a veil of secrecy.”
Iowa Code Chapter 21, the Open Meeting Law, Section 21.5 addresses closed sessions.
“j. To discuss the purchase or sale of particular real estate only when premature disclosure could be reasonably expected to increase the price the governmental body would have to pay for that property or reduce the price the governmental body would receive for that property. The minutes and audio recording of a closed session under this paragraph shall be available for public examination when the transaction discussed is completed.”
The budget includes $1.7 million to be spent in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 and $1.3 million in FY 20, presumably for the acquisition of the land and structures.
“I questioned the overall conservation value of such an expensive and built-out series of properties,” Rettig said. “It seems I was misinformed. It now appears an additional $1 million for this project is planned for FY 21. That’s four million of your money, that you haven’t been allowed to know anything about, or discuss, or debate.”
Rettig clarified, “I say it appears because even the board of supervisors was denied a copy of the appraisals of these projects to review.” She noted the appraisal was paid for by the taxpayers, “But you are not allowed to see it. These $4 million of properties are assessed for less than a quarter that cost.” Four million dollars, Rettig said, represents 20 percent of the entire conservation bond initiative. “I campaigned tirelessly with a number of other people for that campaign,” she said.
Rettig was a co-chair of Our Land, Water and Future, an organization of volunteers which supported the conservation bond.
She added she has questions about the upkeep, maintenance, long term liability and a strategic plan for the property among other concerns. “We are being asked to pass this budget on faith without transparency and public accountability,” she said. “We are not allowed to see the purchase price of beautiful woodlands versus expensive buildings. I will vote no on the FY ’19 budget.”
Supervisor Kurt Friese explained why he would vote for the budget with his own prepared statement, noting that “the law is the law,” regarding the conservation board’s closed meetings.
“There are misconceptions in the public based on incomplete information,” Friese said. “While many may not like the process for myriad reasons, it remains the law and I for one intend to abide by it. Public discourse has a likelihood of increasing the price the county may have to pay for a property.” Friese stressed at this point, no deal had been struck. “No transaction has been secured or finalized. Tonight’s budget vote is not a vote to approve a transaction, only to authorize a potential expenditure in the event the conservation board approves the proposed acquisition.”
Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglas stated, “When a once-in-a-lifetime unique opportunity comes our way to preserve a hundred or more acres of woodlands, I will be a ‘yes’ vote.” She read the conservation bond ballot language, which states in part, “Shall the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, be authorized to acquire and develop lands with public access provided, to be managed by the Johnson County Conservation Board, in order to protect the water quality and rivers, lakes and streams, protect forests to improve air quality, protect natural areas and wildlife habitat from development, and provide for parks and trails.”
“When you look at those words you can see that there are a lot of provisions in there for a variety of acquisitions,” Green-Douglas added.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan spoke to the intentions behind the conservation bond. Sullivan pointed out he and former conservation director Harry Graves initially wrote the bond issue in 2006.
“I showed him an envelope with my plan to go for a vote of the people in 2008 for $10 million for conservation,” Sullivan said. “That $10 million ended up being $20 million.” He noted the vote surpassed the required 60 percent in what was to that point, the highest voter turnout in Johnson County history. Sullivan defended the work of the conservation board as he ticked off a list of projects, including the Clear Creek Trail, Chia Fen and a major expansion of the Cedar River Crossing (at Sutliff).
“I am really proud of the work of the conservation board during my 13-plus years as a member of the board of supervisors,” Sullivan said. “I stand by the conservation board and staff and I trust the conservation board and staff. As far as I am concerned, they have lived up to the intent of the bond and then some.”
Mike Carberry, the chairman of the board of supervisors, prefaced his comments by stating the county attorney had warned the supervisors, “that discussing the issues in question outside the executive session would be a violation of Iowa Code 21.5.”
Eventually, when it would not be a violation, he said, “all questions will be answered and all issues addressed.” Carberry expressed his support and respect for the conservation board and supported their recommendation related to the project. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect a huge stand of hardwood forest,” he said. “I will support it.”
Carberry added he initially had questions and was on the fence. However, after meeting individually with conservation board members and county conservation director Larry Gullett, Carberry said all his questions were addressed. All previous land acquisitions were done, “behind closed doors, because they had to be. It just has to be,” Carberry said. “We trust the conservation board and they have come through every time. They will come through this time. This is a high-quality project. This is worth having. This is worth protecting. I support this.”
The board of supervisors’ next meeting is set for Wednesday, March 21, with a 9 a.m. work session ahead of a Thursday, March 22, formal meeting (also at 9 a.m.) with an informal session to follow. The board meets in its chamber on the second floor of the Johnson County Administration Building located at 913 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City. The conservation board meets the third Tuesday of each month in the first floor meeting room (Betty Sass Room) in the county administration building.