Rob Douglas: Atira’s call to Quinn raises thorny issues
April 10, 2009
Steamboat Springs — The Atira Group – developers of Ski Time Square, Edgemont, Thunderhead and other projects at the ski area base – acted inappropriately by contacting Steamboat Springs City Councilman Jon Quinn at a critical moment in the council’s review of Thunderhead.
To be clear, Quinn’s actions concerning Atira are not in question.
But Atira’s call to Quinn to discuss possibly terminating its long-standing business relationship with him – with Atira hopeful that Quinn would then stop recusing himself from council votes – was wrong.
Placed in context, it is clear Quinn has wrestled with questions surrounding conflicts of interest between his council duties and his business interests as an owner of Northwest Data Services from the moment he joined the council.
But admirably, Quinn has not only publicly shared his thinking about his quandary, he consistently and correctly has decided to recuse himself from matters in which he has a substantial financial interest.
Quinn’s conflicts involving Atira first were raised when Edgemont was before the council the day Quinn was sworn in back in November 2007. Although Quinn told the Pilot & Today the day before that he didn’t feel he had to recuse himself from Atira matters, he did so that day at the request of other council members.
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Soon thereafter, Quinn addressed the issue of conflicts in a December 2007 Pilot & Today article written after a council retreat during which conflicts of interest were discussed. According to the article, Quinn and Atira initially believed Quinn should vote on Atira projects. But, based on input from other council members during the retreat, Quinn decided to recuse himself from all Atira matters.
In keeping with that 2007 decision, Quinn has recused himself from all Atira projects with no negative consequences for Atira – until recently.
Two months ago, Atira’s application for Thunderhead came before the council on a motion for approval. With Quinn recusing himself, the motion failed because of a tie vote.
After the tie vote and a decision that evening that Atira could amend their application and ask for an expeditious second vote, Quinn told the Pilot & Today that he had debated whether to recuse himself from the Thunderhead issue. But once again, he said he stepped down to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.
Quinn’s public admission that he wrestled with his decision to recuse himself on a key Atira vote was followed by Atira contacting Quinn and placing his continued work for Atira in jeopardy. Significantly, that call to Quinn was made after the tie vote that put the Thunderhead project in doubt and before the scheduled second vote earlier this week. Tuesday’s vote evenutally was postponed.
As reported in the Pilot & Today this week, Atira Vice President for Development Mark Mathews contacted Quinn after the tie vote because “Atira and its partners recently considered severing their business relationship with Quinn.”
In what smacks of spin, Mathews’ answer to why he contacted Quinn to discuss severing Atira’s business relationship at this crucial moment in Atira’s dealings with the city was couched as Atira trying to assist Quinn in avoiding any conflict of interest.
Mathews told the Pilot & Today, “Although Atira hired Northwest Data because they do good work, it could be perceived that by hiring Jon’s company we are attempting to influence council – even informally.”
So, get this: Atira wants us to believe that after working with Quinn’s firm for years, they suddenly and coincidentally decided on the eve of a make-or-break vote to discuss with Quinn severing their relationship so it wouldn’t appear they are influencing the council.
If that’s not spin, I don’t know what is. But perhaps another of Mathews’ spun responses reveals reality.
Again, according to a story in the Pilot & Today:
“Asked if a severance of Atira’s business relationship with Quinn would be accompanied by an expectation that the councilman no longer would step down from hearings involving the company’s projects, Mathews wrote, ‘It is ideal to have all council members representing their constituents and weighing in on important decisions. It would be up to Jon and his fellow council members to determine if it would be appropriate for him to vote on Atira Group projects.'”
I think a fair translation of Mathews’ polished answer is: “Yes, we may terminate our business relationship with Quinn’s firm in expectation that Quinn start voting on Atira’s projects.”
Appropriately, Quinn was outraged by Atira’s suggestion that they end their business relationship so that he might vote on Atira’s projects. Quinn recognizes that his ethics would be questioned if he started to vote after a severance from Atira, stating, “I would never vote on that stuff because that perception is still out there. I think there always would be.”
What is most troubling about Atira’s decision to contact Quinn at this crucial moment for the Thunderhead project is that it raises the thorny question about whether Atira is trying to influence Quinn or the council. Hopefully, this was a ham-handed contact by Atira to Quinn that was an error in judgment that won’t be repeated.
But just in case anyone with business before any government body in Colorado is unaware, Colorado law prohibits attempts to influence public servants by means of economic reprisal with the intent to alter or affect a public servant’s decision, vote, opinion or action concerning any matter to be considered or performed by the public servant or the agency or body of which he is a member.
To contact Rob Douglas, e-mail Rob.Douglas@comcast.net