Archived Story

WCDA fields questions about conflict, funding

Published 12:00pm Wednesday, August 8, 2012

By Deb Nicklay, Mason City Globe Gazette

NORTHWOOD — The Worth County Development Authority board of directors, the granting arm of Diamond Jo Worth Casino’s charitable funds, came under fire Tuesday, with some citizens raising questions about conflicts of interest and use of funding.

The board, however, defended both its record of volunteerism and ability to grant funds to education and Worth County communities, and its work to bring the casino to Worth County that made the funds possible.

“I never knew it was so hard to give away money,” said board President Dan Reeder of the current complaints.

Curt Beason, a Davenport attorney who represents the WCDA, attended the meeting. The board went into closed session after two hours to discuss pending litigation of an undisclosed nature.

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission confirmed last month it was investigating a complaint lodged against the WCDA for reasons Administrator Brian Ohorilko said would not be made public until the investigation was complete.

Ohorilko said earlier Tuesday the investigation is taking longer than anticipated but not due to any expansion of its investigation. Other casino matters in other areas of the state have taken away from the time available for the process, he said. The investigation is focused on board activity, not actions by its two-member staff.

About 15 citizens attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Mindy Heeren of Northwood questioned use of a “special projects” fund and how it seemed to strip funds from education. In an often-confusing discussion, the board said she had simply been misinformed in how the monies from the fund were used, adding that both education and special projects were paid from the fund.

As the first one to speak, she was asked to provide her other questions in writing upon the advice of Beason.

Despite that request, others queried board members from everything about its lack of publishing its profit and loss statement in its minutes to asking if board members abstained from voting when projects of special interest to their communities were discussed.

Board members said all members abstained from voting when issues related to their entities were discussed.

Shelly Skellenger of Northwood said she did not see abstention from board member Joyce Russell of Fertile at WCDA meetings when Fertile items were discussed, according to WCDA minutes.

Russell, who is mayor of Fertile, disagreed. She said always abstained at WCDA meetings when Fertile requests were made.

It was also noted that Ken Abrams’ daughter, Theresa Cooper, served as a member of the WCDA board with Abrams, a Worth County supervisor.

Cooper has since resigned. WCDA board member Roger Gentz said he hoped she would return and that she had proved unbiased in her views. Beason added the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission also agreed she could serve without conflict.

Reeder said if the county’s casino corridor project is discussed during meetings, the board can ask Abrams for an update, but Abrams cannot vote on the upcoming grant request for funding. The project is so large — some $900,000 — that the board has proposed that no other grant awards be made this fall.

Reeder said “the vast majority of the public” thinks the project is a good one. That work to build infrastructure will help with development along the I-35 interchange near Diamond Jo, he said.

Still, as one person noted after the meeting, the discussion confirmed a problem they had with the board: Although the grant application from the county has not yet been received, the money has already been at least informally approved, raising concerns about how grants were handled and whether everyone’s grants were given equal weight for consideration.

The WCDA website seems to agree: It said that “all funds for the November 15, 2012, granting period have been set aside to help Worth County build the sewer and water treatment infrastructure necessary for future development.”

The absence of a profit and loss statement in WCDA minutes was intentional, said Chief Financial Officer Deb Hanson, who began to keep them out of publication because statements showed interest earnings made it look as if the WCDA had more money than it did. The board approved the move.

When asked about obtaining a copy, Beason said approval would have to come from the Racing and Gaming Commission. Although the statements are discussed in a public meeting, the commission, by statute, has different laws about documents.

“It’s only a public document when Iowa Racing and Gaming said it’s a public document,” he said.

Another woman questioned why the board seemed to have the same people serve year after year. Board members said the board rotates two members off the board and brings on two new members on a six-year term rotation.

Hanson said that if someone wanted to serve, they should express an interest. That person must have an extensive background check and understand it is a non-paid position. The entire process costs about $15,000 and takes a year to complete.

Gentz and Hanson both said that many people, when they find out it is not a paid position, no longer have an interest in serving.