In the aftermath of being accused of selling his vote, one West Jordan city councilman has decided to return a controversial $1,500 campaign donation.
In a letter to Peterson Development on Saturday, Rob Bennett apologized to the company for asking for a donation while the company had projects in process with the city and for any appearance of impropriety the donation may have caused.
"I absolutely affirm there was no intent of my ever voting differently in regards to your projects or any other, whether you donated to my campaign or not," Bennett told the company in a letter. "To avoid the appearance of evil and to preserve the good name of your company as well as my own, I am returning your campaign donation."
Bennett and City Councilman Mike Kellermeyer who are both up for re-election have each come under fire in the few remaining days before Tuesday's election for accepting a $1,500 contribution from the Peterson Development Co. The two men accepted the contributions shortly before voting to increase the density of a proposed Peterson project.
Both Bennett and Kellermeyer have a reputation in the community for generally opposing high-density projects, and their votes represent an about-face to some residents and members of the council.
"It reflects badly on the entire council," Councilwoman Melissa Johnson said. "It reflects badly on the city, and I believe it gives developers the idea that in order for a project to be approved, you need to contribute to a council member's campaign. I think it gives residents the idea that developers can put any density they want wherever they want if they're willing to pay the council to get it."
Johnson says she doesn't think giving the money back will change some residents' negative view of Bennett. "I personally don't think there's a lot either of them can do to change their perception," Johnson said.
Bennett and Kellermeyer emphatically deny that accepting the contribution had any effect on their votes, and according to Kellermeyer, the negative publicity is a well-timed stunt to tarnish Bennett's campaign with Kellermeyer as collateral damage.
"My vote was not inconsistent with my voting patterns," Kellermeyer said. "I've voted for high density where I feel it makes sense. I fight high density in some places, but this particular project ... addressed quite a few things, and I felt like it was a deserving project."
On Oct. 16, five days after receiving a contribution from Peterson Development, Kellermeyer and Bennett voted to increase the density of a 300-acre Peterson project from 848 units to 924 units. In June, Bennett voted against increasing the density of a 15-acre Ivory Homes development in the same area.
The Peterson project received previous approval to build 924 homes on 315 acres, but when the developers failed to obtain the 15-acre parcel that now belongs to Ivory Homes, West Jordan's planning commission recommended downsizing the project to make up for the loss of acreage.
Bennett said he voted to give the Peterson project more density because the developers added senior housing, which he believes will have less impact on the community. The councilman balks at the idea that he made his vote based on any other influence."The thought of being influenced by anyone is so far from my conscious thought that if I had thought there would be a possible connection there, I would have either returned the donation or considered recusing myself," Bennett said. "If I could have rezoned the 300 acres to be low density, I would have voted for that option, but that wasn't an option. I (voted for) the lowest density I thought we were able to get in a negotiated settlement to give us more of a housing type that is lacking in West Jordan and the high density was nothing we could change."