CEDAR RAPIDS — While his eight colleagues on the Cedar Rapids City Council have recused themselves from voting on city business a combined five times since Feb. 26, Mayor Brad Hart has recused himself 37 times in the same period, according to city records.
Council members are advised to recuse themselves if there is an actual or perceived conflict of interest, typically related to a financial benefit, in the agenda item before them for a vote.
Hart is a longtime business lawyer for Bradley & Riley, one of the larger law firms in town, while also serving as part-time mayor.
He has been recusing himself if his firm represents a client with business before the city to avoid the perception of a conflict — not because he stands to gain financially — and out of an abundance of caution, he said. He is the only working lawyer on the council.
“I don’t think it has any impact” on the ability to be mayor, Hart said. “If I was recusing myself consistently on key issues, that would be a problem. I talked to people before I ran, and we didn’t think it was an issue and I don’t think it has been an issue.”
Most of the recusals have been for items on the consent agenda — matters considered non-controversial and routine that are approved as a slate by a simple majority vote of the council.
Most of those have involved Rathje Construction, which is a regular contractor for city road construction projects.
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To a lesser extent, Hart also has recused himself on non-consent items. Examples include a May 28 vote related to reinstating automated traffic cameras, and what wound up being a controversial residential housing project called the American Prairie of Wright Brothers Boulevard in a June 11 vote.
In none of the instances would Hart have been the deciding vote.
Uptick in recusals
In total, he has abstained from voting 43 times since taking office in January 2018, meaning he had recused himself only six times before Feb. 26.
As a point of reference, the City Council has voted on thousands of items in that time. At the most recent council meeting, last Tuesday, which had a smaller docket than typical meetings, the agenda had approximately 75 items.
By comparison, Scott Olson, an independent commercial broker, has recused himself 17 times and Dale Todd, who works for a developer, recused himself 12 times. They along with Hart are the only council members to recuse themselves more than 10 times since January 2018.
Olson said his recusals have been when he directly represents clients with business with the city. He has also recused himself on a land purchase involving Four Oaks, for which Olson sits on the board.
Olson, who has served since 2011, noted he has scaled back when he recuses from voting after early on abstaining anytime a business partner had matters with the city, even if Olson wasn’t directly involved.
He said he believes Hart is playing it safe, and his recusals have little impact on his or the council’s ability to function.
“The big difference for him is when any of the other lawyers in the firm have a client, he recuses himself,” Olson said. “He has to reflect the firm where I only reflect my personal business.”
‘Should be expected’
Todd’s recusals primarily have been when the company he works for — Hatch Development — has an item on the agenda. He also has recused himself on a special events permit for the race he organizes — Trashmore 5K: Dash to Bash Epilepsy — on behalf of the Iowa Epilepsy Foundation. His son has epilepsy.
On the other hand, he has voted on items related to the restoration of Cedar Lake. Todd long has championed the Cedar Lake project, but has never stood to financially benefit from it.
“In the past, we had a full-time City Council whose sole job was to develop public policy and move the city forward,” Todd said. “Now, we have part-time members who have to work for a living and are involved in numerous causes. ... This is almost the nature of the beast. You want to have council members who are involved in a wide cross-section of activities, but who are also transparent when it comes to potential conflicts.”
Alan Kemp, the executive director for the Iowa League of Cities, said the threshold for recusing varies from community to community, but having council members recuse themselves is not unusual.
“I don’t think citizens should be surprised given how diverse operations are, especially in a large city like Cedar Rapids,” Kemp said. “It should be expected there could be overlap.”
Two main factors
Hart attributed the uptick in his recusals to two main factors — an ethics board ruling on traffic camera-related votes; and it being road construction season.
“What changed was the ethics board opinion; I don’t agree with it,” Hart said. “It is far more strict than I think is right, but because of that I am being extra careful, and because it is construction season.”
Hart sought the ethics board opinion in March — shortly after his increase in recusals began — about whether he could vote on matters related to the reinstatement of automated traffic camera enforcement.
The ethics board ruled voting on matters where Bradley & Riley clients were doing business with the city would be a both a perceived conflict and conceivably a direct one.
The law firm — but not Hart personally — represents camera vendor Sensys Gatso USA.
Hart said he disagreed with the opinion, but agreed to abide by it.
For the second, his law firm represents contractors who have been hired to do city road work. Such projects routinely require follow up votes, such as when a change order is needed to increase or decrease the contract amount. All of the recusals related to Rathje were on the consent agenda.
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Hart said before he decided to run for mayor — succeeding Ron Corbett, who did not seek reelection — he asked the state bar association to revise a long standing, but outdated ruling that if a lawyer served on a city council, board or commission, no one in the law firm could work on city matters.
Hart said virtually nobody was abiding by the rule as numerous lawyers around the state served in elected or appointed municipal offices.
Hart also said after taking office he relinquished his partnership in the law firm — likely sacrificing more than $100,000 last year — and became a non-equity shareholder, meaning he doesn’t share in profits.
He said he did this because he anticipated having workload obligations as mayor that would make it difficult to pull his weight compared with other firm partners.
As a byproduct of that, he is not personally benefiting if a client is doing a lot of business with other lawyers at the firm as he would as a partner.
The ethics board pointed out this still could be considered a direct benefit if his employer has a healthy business.
“I felt if I couldn’t work as many hours, I wasn’t going to shortchange the city, so I took the hit,” Hart said. “I think it is more than is necessary, but I want to do more than is necessary and make sure there are not any questions of my integrity.”
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