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Columbia Missourian

Tillotson campaign accuses Hoppe of abusing power in fraternity house agreement

By Kip Hill
March 21, 2012 | 11:32 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Sixth Ward City Council candidate Bill Tillotson is alleging that opponent and incumbent Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe abused her position when she intervened last fall in an East Campus Neighborhood Association fight against Beta Theta Pi's construction of a house that is taller than city codes allow.

In a 130-page packet delivered to the Missourian and in a 30-second television ad that aired Wednesday night, Tillotson's campaign accuses Hoppe of concealing the details of negotiations among the neighborhood group and the fraternity, its architect and its attorney that led to an agreement allowing the home to be built. He also alleges that Hoppe acquired public records for free on behalf of neighborhood residents. 

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"Finding a way for an individual not to pay for city services is a very direct abuse of power," Tillotson said in an interview.

His campaign also says Hoppe acted inappropriately in supporting the will of neighborhood residents who support her campaign over the interests of fraternity members who also are constituents.

A dispute arose between the neighborhood association and the fraternity in November. A design for the house approved in error by city staff exceeded height restrictions in city ordinances by more than 7 feet.

Hoppe said in a news release responding to the television ad Wednesday that her actions as councilwoman led to talks that allowed the fraternity to avoid demolishing the house and starting over. Tillotson's campaign said the fraternity at the time of the dispute already had invested $3 million in the house at 520 College Ave.

"Rather than force the structure to be demolished and rebuilt to code, I suggested that the neighborhood association communicate with the builder to come to a mutually beneficial solution," Hoppe said in her statement.

"I clearly helped the students, the neighborhood as well as the city," Hoppe said in an interview Wednesday.

Hoppe said she was present when the agreement between the neighborhood association and the fraternity was signed and that an attorney for the architect, Treanor Architects, drafted a confidentiality agreement about its terms.

Tillotson said that if Hoppe’s motivation were to broker a compromise, she would have been more forthcoming about the details of that agreement, which she has never disclosed. Tillotson's campaign said Hoppe is not bound to the confidentiality pact.

"If you’re going to help the Beta House and work out a financial agreement, why does it have to be secret?" Tillotson asked.

Hoppe said that regardless of whether she is legally bound to secrecy, the fact that when she was in the room when the talks took place ethically compels her to keep them confidential.

Tillotson's campaign alleges that the settlement called for a payment of $100,000 to the neighborhood association in exchange for its agreement not to oppose a variance allowing construction of the house. It cited a source with firsthand knowledge of the talks but said that person refuses to go public. Hoppe would not confirm the amount. 

The agreement happened just before the Board of Adjustment approved the variance Dec. 13 with no opposition from the East Campus association.

Tillotson supporters Scott Charton and Phil Warnken wrote and compiled the materials provided to the Missourian.

"Hoppe has shown hypocrisy about openness and transparency in city government by failing to disclose or subject the deal and the $100,000 payoff to scrutiny by city staff and her Council colleagues — and apparently having no intention of disclosing or discussing it publicly until after the April 3 election," Charton wrote.

Tillotson’s campaign points to a number of emails — provided to the Missourian — that were obtained through a records request to the city indicating members of the neighborhood association at first wanted construction of the house halted and later wanted compensation for the oversight regarding its height. Some of the those emails came from supporters of Hoppe's campaign.

On Nov. 20, an email from Lauriehyne@aol.com was sent to Hoppe and to East Campus Neighborhood Association President Janet Hammen.

"Overall, I don’t see that it’s in our best interest to fight this at the Board of adjustment (sic), because I think we will look very unreasonable," it read, "but I do think we need to exact our price for this mistake…"

Hoppe made a motion at a Nov. 21 meeting that the city order construction on the house to stop. That motion passed unanimously, but the fraternity's appeal to the Board of Adjustment prevented that order from taking effect immediately.

References to the matter emerged in public as recently as Monday night's City Council meeting, when Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill asked where the city, the architect and the fraternity stood on construction of the Beta house.

City Counselor Fred Boeckmann said that an agreement had been reached and that there had been no legal action on behalf of the city, according to a video transcript of the council meeting on the city's website.

"Did money change hands? We didn't get any money?" Mayor Bob McDavid said.

"That's what somebody asked me: Did the city get paid for this?" Thornhill asked.

"No," Hoppe replied.

The emails provided by the Tillotson campaign suggest that Hoppe was thinking about the Beta House settlement only a few days after the neighborhood and the fraternity reached an agreement.

The emails include a message that Hoppe sent to herself Dec. 16 in preparation for a meeting with City Manager Mike Matthes. It lists points that she planned to raise with Matthes. Among those were "East campus neighborhood-Beta House additional parkland, historic lights/banners."

Hoppe said it will be up to the East Campus association to decide how to spend the settlement money. She only wanted to talk to Matthes, she said, about whether the city would incur any expense in helping it fulfill the projects it was considering.    

Tillotson’s campaign further accuses Hoppe of acting as inappropriate counsel for the neighborhood association.

"Hoppe, an attorney, admitted serving as an ‘adviser’ to her East Campus political backers, while the Beta Theta Pi fraternity had to rely on outside legal counsel," Charton's statement reads. "Hoppe was wearing many hats — Council member, attorney, adviser and self-interested incumbent politician seeking re-election."

Hoppe’s statement says her role was limited to attending a discussion among the neighborhood group, Beta Theta Pi and its architect and attorney.* She also was present when Hammen read and signed the agreement, she said.

In a related accusation, the Tillotson campaign alleges Hoppe intervened to obtain city records for East Campus residents about the fraternity house construction for free. After neighborhood residents Hammen and Betsy Peters filed Sunshine requests seeking those records, Hoppe sent a subsequent email to the Community Development Department saying she would like the records, too, but that Peters would pick them up.

"I understand that the information should be provided free for me," Hoppe wrote. "I will rely on Betsy Peters to decide what is needed and she will pick it up for me." 

Hoppe said she regularly shares public records with constituents who are interested in them.

Peters has donated $1,000 to Hoppe's campaign, according to a finance report on file with the Missouri Ethics Commission.   

Tillotson's ad, titled "HOPPIEGATE FINAL_iPod_Low for web" in a version provided to the Missourian, starts with a photograph of Hoppe in a party setting with her husband, Mike Sleadd. A magnifying glass comes onto the screen, distorting Hoppe's face. Hoppe said that the cigarette she appears to be smoking is fake and that her husband used PhotoShop software to add to the image the necklaces she and Sleadd appear to be wearing.*

"I never smoke, and my father died of cancer," she said.

The commercial accuses Hoppe of siding with political donors when she stopped the fraternity building project until "she and her buddies could squeeze a $100,000 secret payoff." A man holding a cigar flips through a stack of bills while the ad alleges Hoppe is a hypocrite when she advocates for government transparency.

Hoppe said in her statement that the ad brings "local Columbia politics to a new low."

"It's just uncalled for," she said in the interview. "Columbia is better than that."

Missourian reporter Tony Lee contributed to this report.