Lee’s Summit council campaign contributions questioned

rpulley@lsjournal.comMay 14, 2014 

Two of Lee’s Summit’s new council members each accepted hundreds of dollars in campaign contributions from donors associated with RED Development, which is seeking subsidies for its Summit Place shopping center.

At least one other council member is perturbed by the situation.

District 1 Councilwoman Diane Forte and District 3 Councilwoman Diane Seif received contributions for the April 8 election from Jeff Haney, a vice president of RED Development and David Townsend, president of Townsend Capital.

Those two companies are partnering to build a $72 million shopping center at 1301 Ward Road, east of the SummitWoods Crossing and Summit Fair centers, also RED Development projects.

Those donations were noteworthy updates reported in 30-day after election reports filed this month by the candidates.

The council on May 15 is to vote on amending a tax-increment financing plan, zoning and other decisions to allow the $78 million Summit Place to go forward. The council later will also have to approve a contract with other details of the TIF before the deal is final.

Councilman Derek Holland, who is questioning the amount of subsidy RED, has not been shy about raising alarm over the project’s costs. He outlined his concerns in an editorial he penned for the Journal.

Asked if the campaign contributions are a concern, he said: “It sure as hell is ... I don’t know if it is to anybody else in the city. I’m not suggesting it would buy anyone’s vote, I think it raises ethical questions.”

Holland said the donations are too direct considering the timing coming soon after the election for a vote such an important and precedent-setting project. Holland said he hasn’t decided whether he’d ask for Seif or Forte to abstain from voting or make the issue part of the larger debate.

Forte said she thought Holland is raising the issue about “funny money” as a side issue to win political support for his position.

“The money I accepted was after I already said I was for the development,” Forte said. “I made that clear from the very beginning.”

She accepted donations of $200 from Haney and $250 from Townsend. Steve Rich, director of project development for Townsend Capital in March also donated $250 to Forte.

Forte said that she has been studying Summit Place issue closely.

“I haven’t found anything to change my mind,” Forte said.

Forte said that Holland and the previous council should have “had the guts” to go ahead and vote on the project earlier.

“This is the first big vote of the council, and we’re going to play politics, that’s what it is, and I’m not going to play politics,” she said.

She said she’ll vote for what she thinks is best for the city and isn’t going to “throw anyone under the bus” for the way they vote.

Seif’s report said her campaign got $200 from Haney and $250 from Townsend on April 11.

Seif had a large campaign chest of about $16,000, including several other developers, but their contributions were a small part of the overall donations from many individuals and businesses not in the development trade.

She said she thought she was so successful raising money because of her long record of volunteerism and relationships she has developed in the community.

“I don’t think there’s a problem whatsoever, as long as there’s been an ongoing relationship for many years,” Seif said. “People wanted to see me on the council ... they believe in my ethics and community involvement.”

Seif said could see Holland’s position if the donations from Haney or Townsend had been a large amount of money, say $5,000 or $10,000.

She said she considered the donations from Haney no different from those from other supporters who’d know her for years. She said she had worked with Haney’s father at Marion Labs year ago.

Haney said he didn’t believe making the campaign contributions were unethical, noting his company has been a large supporter and investor in the community and he makes donations to good candidates when asked.

“It’s America, we can back who we like,” Haney said.

He said he hopes the council members consider the pluses and minuses of the project and see its benefits. He said RED Development has spent a lot of effort and money on the project so far and, “we hope this is a public-private partnership we can continue.”

Rich could not be reached for comment.

Craig Faith, an unsuccessful candidate in the District 2 race, also got donations from Townsend and Rich.

District 2 Councilwoman Trish Carlyle, who won that race, didn’t report any donations that were from people associated with the Summit Place project.

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