One of two stories on the aquatic center – Rick Langenberg

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WP Attorney: No Conflict of Interest Violations with School Aquatic Center Contract
Rick Langenberg

Plans for constructing a new $10.1 million aquatic center near the Woodland Park High School moved another step forward, as the city’s head attorney last week ruled that no conflict of interest violations would occur with the involvement of two athletic coaches, who also represent the WP Council.

“They do not have a legal conflict,” concluded head city attorney Erin Smith.

This further opens the door for a contract to get finalized between the city and the school district for housing the aquatic center near the high school. The location, though, is still getting a cold response by nearby residents and many people in the community (see related story).

At issue is the fact that two vocal council supporters of the new aquatic center location are coaches at the Woodland Park High School. This deals with duties of Mayor Neil Levy and Councilman Noel Sawyer, who act as the head school coaches for the baseball and soccer teams respectfully. Plus, the two council members. and especially Sawyer, have been big supporters of locating the center near the high school. “The school location is one of the safest locations (for the aquatic center),” said Sawyer, in an earlier discussion last week on the center site. Moreover, he described it as the most “familiar” for most residents and people in the community.

This site, located adjacent to Gateway Elementary, has now been cited as the favorite choice among city leaders for housing the new aqua hub. In Nov. 2014, Woodland Park voters heavily agreed to let the city incur debt over the next two decades to construct a top-rate aquatic center, but they didn’t choose a location. The school location would involve a joint deal between the RE-2 District and the city of Woodland Park. The site, though, has raised some controversy, as it was previously rejected.

Recently, Smith was asked to review if any conflict of interest violations would occur from council members who are involved with school jobs and duties.

During a lengthy explanation at last week’s meeting, she concluded that no conflicts would occur with the council members voting on the school/city contract and other related issues pertaining to the location of the aquatic hub. She based this ruling on state guidelines pertaining to potential conflict of interest situations.

In essence, the attorney noted that the coaches wouldn’t receive any substantial private, or economic benefit from such a contract. According to Smith, the coaches’ compensation packages for their sports ‘ coaching roles collectively totaled $10,600 a year, and that also includes pay towards assistant coaches. “It does not present a legal conflict,” said Smith.

She only saw a potential problem, if they acted as consultants for the school district, and received money or benefits if the contract moved forward. And based on preliminary talks, Smith noted that the school district and the city are discussing a bartering of services and fees if the center is located on school property, with no entity receiving a big pay-off.

Final Decision Rests with City Council
However, that said, Smith stated that based on the city’s charter, the council could take a different stand and rule that a conflict of interest did exist and ask that Levy and Sawyer not participate in any votes or discussions regarding the aquatic center location. In comments at last week’s meeting, most council members didn’t see any problems. “I didn’t even think of a conflict of interest,” said Councilman John Schafer.

But Councilman Phil Mella noted that a public perception situation may develop and advised both council members to tread cautiously.

“Perception is in the eye of the beholder,” said Mella. “These are not easy decisions to make.”

Councilman Bob Carlsen agreed that public perceptions of potential conflicts can amount to a problem, but he wanted to “leave it up to each individual (members of the city council who this may affect ).”

In commenting on any potential conflict that may arise from their involvement as coaches, Sawyer maintained that he mainly wanted to see a community aquatic center that “benefits families, children and adults.”

“It does not benefit me in any way,” said Sawyer. “I see no conflict of interest. I am just a soccer coach. I don’t go into the school. I don’t go into staff meetings.”

As a result, Sawyer announced his intentions to continue to vote on the contract, even if the school site is pursued.

Levy, however, took a more cautionary stand, and indicated he may recuse himself on certain occasions. But like Sawyer, he didn’t see any benefits derived from his involvement as a head coach. In fact, based on what he receives himself from his role as the head baseball skipper, he noted that he gets well below the minimum wage for his role, a duty he said he does for the love of helping kids.

“We pride ourselves on doing the right thing,” said the mayor. “I want to be above reproach. Sometimes it’s easier to step away.”

He agreed with Mella about public perception concerns, but didn’t really see a problem. The mayor said he hasn’t made a final decision on whether he would vote on contract issues pertaining to the aquatic center location or pending contracts.

Negotiations are still proceeding between both entities for developing an aquatic center at the school area. “It’s not a done deal that we will go there,” said City Manager David Buttery, during an earlier discussion on the building the center near the high school.

However, city officials have made it clear they are heavily favoring the school site as the probable place for the new aquatic hub.