COLUMBIA, Mo. - Columbia Councilman Ian Thomas reported himself to the Missouri Ethics Commission in November after city attorney Nancy Thompson informed him that a deal he made with developers potentially violated a state law.
According to documents obtained by ABC 17 News, Thomas sent a letter to the MEC on Nov. 19 that detailed the process he went through with developers of the potential Oakland Crossing Development, during which he agreed to "champion" the project in exchange for a donation to the Columbia Community Land Trust.
At the time, developers were working to get land annexed and zoning approved for 165 single-family homes and two commercial properties. The Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission voted in favor of the request in October. It was to come before the city council for a public hearing and vote shortly after that.
In his letter, Thomas, who represents the city's Fourth Ward, wrote that he asked the applicants to consider adding a few "affordable housing" units in the site plan, but that the applicants told him it was too late in the process to change the plans.
"They were interested in this idea, they do feel that developers should be part of the solution of social problems such as this," said Thomas.
Although Thomas is running unopposed, he is backing a policy platform that includes the city adopting "inclusionary zoning." That would mean private developers would be required to make a certain number of units in a new housing project permanently affordable.
Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp was copied on the correspondence. He told ABC 17 News Monday afternoon that while Thomas named him personally in an email as having agreed to the developer's proposal, that was actually not the case.
"I was just there as a resource," he said. "I never agreed to that."
He said he supported the developers' plan as proposed, without the need for affordable housing additions.
In an email to project engineer Jay Gebhardt on Nov. 14, Thomas wrote that he agreed with the developers' suggestion that they donate to the Columbia Community Land Trust instead of including low-cost housing.
"Your proposal to pay $44,000 into the Columbia Community Land Trust (CCLT) is exactly the kind of important, symbolic gesture I was hoping for," Thomas wrote.
Gebhardt responded that they'd be willing to pay $213 per lot, which came out to $35,000.
"We are responding to your request and we do expect the contribution to be contingent on the approval by the council of all our requests," Gebhardt wrote.
He said the applicants would need their original zoning request approved without alterations.
Thomas countered with $40,000 to the land trust, which is the approximate subsidy required to create one affordable home. He said he would then "write to Council members" before that Monday's city council meeting in order to explain the agreement and why it benefits the city "in the big picture."
City housing programs manager Randy Cole expressed concerns about the deal in an email to Thomas.
"I am concerned with the funds going straight to the CCLT, rather than through our formal processes that ensure we allocate funds for affordable housing in a manner that aligns with our overall strategies and community needs," he said.
Thomas then sent a request to city attorney Nancy Thompson, with former city manager Mike Matthes included, to advise them on a way to create an account for the developers to contribute to instead.
Thompson responded that she could not, because "it is unlawful for the city to accept funds in consideration of favorable action on the developer’s application."
"You may have the best of intentions in discussing this matter with the developer; however, the email thread gives the impression that you will vote in favor of the proposed project if there is a negotiated payment to the CCLT, which is a private entity," Thompson wrote.
At her direction, and the direction of a private attorney, Thomas said he sent the MEC a letter detailing what happened.
"There was never any attempt to conceal information from anyone," Thomas wrote in the letter.
The agreement was canceled, and Thomas planned to recuse himself from all discussions and the vote on the ordinance.
Mayor Brian Treece told ABC 17 News that when he found out about the potential illegality of the deal, he immediately requested that staff remove the proposal from the agenda in order to "protect the public's interest and to determine what additional steps or affirmative action the city needed to take."
Thomas said that while he was working out the deal, he did not think what he was doing was illegal.
"I assumed what I was doing was not morally wrong," he said. "I assumed the law would protect people like me who were not doing something morally wrong."
Treece called the conversations "inappropriate."
"It doesn’t matter how noble the payment was, there was a clear quid pro quo," Treece said.
Thomas contends that he did not do anything illegal because the money would not have benefited him personally.
"I don't think there was any connection with me," he said. "I wasn't asking the developer to pay any money to me or to anybody associated with me.
He said he planned to explain the situation at the next city council meeting, but since the proposal was removed from the agenda, he didn't feel it was necessary since council was already aware of what transpired.
"If somebody had wanted to ask me any questions about it, I would have always been there to answer," he said. "I don't feel in any way defensive about this."