CEDAR RAPIDS — Shortly after Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said in February’s State of the City address that 49 of 50 people he hears from support traffic cameras, a colleague reminded him that his employer at the Bradley & Riley law firm provides legal representation for the vendor the city had hired to run its automated traffic camera program.
“Somebody in my office came to me a few months ago, and said, ‘Don’t forget we are involved. We have been involved,’ after the State of the City,” said Hart, who has worked for Bradley & Riley since 1990 and was elected mayor in late 2017.
The possibility of a conflict of interest didn’t immediately occur to Hart, he said, because the law firm has 30 lawyers working on “all kinds of stuff” and he is not a litigator.
But the encounter prompted him on March 19 to seek an advisory opinion from the city’s Ethics Board.
The board returned a ruling last week that Hart recuse himself from voting and refrain from weighing in on the issue at council meetings or publicly because of the appearance of a conflict, The Gazette reported.
The City Council cast an 8-0 vote Tuesday, with Hart abstaining, that paves the way to begin enforcing speeding and red-light-running tickets again July 1. The cameras have been off amid court disputes.
The vote was seen as a proxy for the council’s support for the traffic camera program, although the decision over camera use rests with the police department, according to city officials.
Because the vote was not a yes or no on ticketing itself but rather an ordinance related to the appeals process — and because he doesn’t share in the law firm’s profits beyond his set wage — Hart said he thought the ethics board could say he did not have a conflict.
He had been on record numerous times touting the benefits of the traffic camera program throughout his mayoral campaign in 2017 — as were six of the seven other candidates — and through his first year and half in office.
Hart said he doesn’t believe his advocacy was inappropriate.
“I am a volunteer,” Hart said. “I’m trying to do my best here. I am not an equity shareholder in my firm. I don’t get paid a penny more if the firm makes more money. None of that would apply. This is not something I would ever do to try to benefit a client. I would never. That’s why I said, I don’t know if this is a true conflict, but let me clear it. Give me credit for asking.”
The part-time mayor’s position pays about $35,000 a year.
David Baker, chairman of the Ethics Board, said recusals on public board carry with them the requirement to not join the debate. But the board’s finding does not apply to things that happened before the recusal.
The role of the board is only to weigh in when an advisory opinion is sought or a complaint is filed, and not proactively seek out matters to address, he said.
“I would think it would be a pretty tough sell to say his commentary before he recused is a problem,” Baker said.
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