Hughes rezoning delayed over ethics complaint for 2nd time

Samantha Ye

Editor’s Note: Complainant Rory Heath is a chair of the Orange Cord Board, the alumni organization for Rocky Mountain Student Media.

The final hearing to rezone the Hughes Stadium land has been delayed again to address an ethics complaint against three members of Fort Collins City Council. The postponement comes two months after Council delayed the same hearing for the same reason.

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Resident Rory Heath filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Wade Troxell, Mayor Pro Tem Kristin Stephens and Councilmember Ken Summers at 3 p.m. on Jan. 21, the same day Council was slated to discuss the Hughes rezoning.

Heath’s complaint requests the three members recuse themselves from the Hughes rezoning process and that remediation is taken for their past involvement.

To address the complaint, Council voted to push the rezoning discussion to March 17.

“It’s not out of desire to postpone the issue,” Stephens said. “It’s really out of desire to make sure there either is an ethics violation here or there isn’t, but until that’s decided, I think the (rezoning) vote can be called into question, and I just don’t like that.”

All three accused councilmembers denied having conflicts of interest that would require them to recuse from voting on Hughes land development matters.

Background

The zoning of the Hughes land will decide what kind of housing development the company Lennar can build on the land. The development design cannot pragmatically move forward until the zoning is decided.

Colorado State University sold the land to Lennar in October 2018 for $10 million.

At the first rezone hearing, Council voted for a part Residential Foothills, part Low Density Mixed-Use Neighborhood zoning to allow about 550 housing units on the 165-acre land, according to City documents. This is a lower density than Lennar’s initial proposal of 600-700 homes but still higher than what most residents who have been speaking at Council requested.

people line up to speak to City Council about Hughes rezoning
About 40 residents lined up to speak to City Council about the Hughes rezoning on Nov. 5, 2019. Almost all of them were against a large development. (Samantha Ye | Collegian)

Council already delayed finalizing this discussion once at the Nov. 19, 2019 meeting, when residents Mary Grant and Nick Frey filed an ethics complaint against Stephens and Troxell.

The first complaint accused Stephens and Troxell of having personal and financial conflicts of interest in the Hughes development because they both work at CSU.

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Stephens is a graduate coordinator in the department of statistics. Troxell is an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department and director of RamLab. Both have disclosed their status as CSU employees during Council’s Hughes rezoning discussions.

The complainants said the two councilmembers should have recused themselves from voting on the first Hughes rezoning, where both members voted to approve the LMN zoning.

Frey later filed an additional complaint against Troxell, regarding how the National Board of Realtors Fund spent about $40,000 to support Troxell’s 2017 re-election, according to The Coloradoan.

On Dec. 16, 2019, the Ethics Review Board, composed of the other five councilmembers, decided the complaints did not meet the municipal standards of a personal or financial conflict of interest to require further action.

What now?

The new complaint filed by Heath makes many of the same allegations against Stephens and Troxell but also refers to state statutes.

One part he highlights says “A local government official … shall not … (perform) an official act directly and substantially affecting to its economic benefit a business or other undertaking in which he either has a substantial financial interest or is engaged as counsel, consultant, representative or agent.”

“I’m seeking to address things that were not actually addressed or were diverted from the public conversation (and) the ethics review the first time around, specifically the addressing of state statutes,” Heath said. “There’s definitely new ground to cover.”

Troxell and Stephens said the new complaint seems to be the same arguments the Board already cleared them of but in different language.

There’s definitely new ground to cover.” – Rory Heath, resident who filed ethics complaint

Heath’s complaint also states Summers should recuse himself because he holds a lobbying service, KGS Consulting. Heath said Summers’ website is a “billboard for ‘pay for play’” politics.

Summers said he started the business before he ran for Council and has not had any clients ever. He said the complaint is “bogus, frivolous and has no factual base whatsoever.”

While Heath is not affiliated with the leading advocacy group, Planning Action to Transform Hughes Sustainably, he said they may share some of the same concerns about Hughes. Heath said he is troubled over how Council voted in opposition to the dozens of public commenters and resident letters asking for open space or RF zoning.

“This is a very special part of Fort Collins’ identity, and it deserves to have each member of the City have say in it, instead of trusting Council to address their wishes,” Heath said.

Read the full complaint here.

Delayed again.

Council voted 5-2 to move the rezoning discussion to March 17 to give the Ethics Review Board time to review the validity of the complaint.

Stephens, in particular, said for the sake of legitimizing the final rezoning vote, the ethics issue should be resolved before the hearing.

“There have been a lot of attacks on my character, and I would like to have that resolved before I vote,” Stephens said. “It may not resolve everybody’s feelings about me, but I would be more comfortable voting knowing people had a chance to air their grievances.”

Troxell and Summers voted against the postponement.

“The complaint is nothing substantive, and it is without merit, and I don’t think it deserves the postponement of the hearing tonight,” Troxell said.

Council could have voted on the rezoning and reviewed the ethics complaint later, City Attorney Carrie Daggett said, but that could complicate the voting outcome if the complaint is later found valid.

Folks, the reality is, we need to take action on this sometime.” -Ken Summers, Fort Collins City councilmember

Some councilmembers expressed trepidation about what this second delay could mean for finalizing the rezoning. The current precedent means the discussion could be delayed again and again by ethics complaints. As such, Council asked Daggett to help brainstorm possibilities for discussion about the ethics complaint and recusal process.

Heath said he doesn’t know if he would file another complaint if his current one is dismissed. He said he does not find the ethics review process itself to be fair since the Board is composed of other councilmembers, subject to the same pitfalls, who are evaluating their peers.

“No one on the Board is impartial,” Heath said.

It has been six months since Council voted to take the unprecedented move of rezoning the Hughes land themselves before a formal development is proposed. This postponement will extend the process to at least eight months.

Councilmembers and Heath said the complaint was not part of any delay tactic.

“Folks, the reality is, we need to take action on this sometime,” Summers said. “At some point, we’re just going to have to deal with the issue, listen to those additional pieces of evidence and comments … and get on with business.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.