Government

Cedar Rapids mayor to recuse himself on key traffic camera vote

Hart sought ethics advice since his law firm represents vendor

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks Dec. 18, 2018, during a City Council meeting at City Hall. In March, he asked the city’s Board of Ethics to issue an advisory opinion on whether he should participate in votes about the local automated traffic camera program since the law firm he works for also represents the city’s camera vendor. (The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks Dec. 18, 2018, during a City Council meeting at City Hall. In March, he asked the city’s Board of Ethics to issue an advisory opinion on whether he should participate in votes about the local automated traffic camera program since the law firm he works for also represents the city’s camera vendor. (The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said he will recuse himself from a key vote tied to resuming automated traffic camera ticketing after years of litigation and legislative proposals in response to an advisory opinion issued Thursday by the city’s Board of Ethics.

Hart asked the five-member board in a March 19 email to consider his role because he works for Bradley & Riley, a law firm that represents camera vendor Sensys Gatso USA, Inc. The City Council is expected to vote on the matter this month.

“I will, of course, abide by the advisory opinion and recuse myself through our usual process to avoid any appearance of a conflict,” Hart wrote Thursday in an email.

Gatso, of Beverly, Mass., has a city contract to operate the traffic cameras and receives about a third of the proceeds of each paid ticket, which start at $75. That had been generating the company more than $1.5 million per year.

While automated cameras have continued to issue red-light running and speeding tickets on city streets, those issuing speeding tickets on Interstate 380 around downtown’s S-curve have been off since a court dispute in April 2017.

Hart has not been directly involved in the law firm’s Gatso work, which includes litigating cases alongside the city on behalf of Gatso and also recently extending and restructuring the city contract. Hart abstained from the vote in March to update the contract but has publicly championed turning the cameras back on multiple times.

“Your status in the law firm or contact with the client does not affect the decision,” board Chairman David Baker, a former Iowa Supreme Court justice, wrote in the opinion. “We find that recusal is required.”

In deliberations Thursday, the board debated whether a conflict of interest technically exists, but all members agreed the appearance of a conflict made the decision obvious.

The ruling notes a city decision on the camera program could trigger more or less work for Hart’s employer, so directly or indirectly a financial benefit could exist. Thus, there potentially could be a direct conflict of interest.

“The fact that Brad is in a quite influential position with the city and works with the same law firm, whether or not it is, it certainly gives the appearance of a conflict of interest,” said board member Kevin King, market president at Ohnward Bank & Trust.

Baker, during the Thursday morning meeting, stated, “This is black letter. I’d rather not go into the mush, the appearance of conflict of interest ... because this is pretty cut and dry.”

The upcoming council vote would be only to clarify the process for administering the ticket program. The vote is not a formal up or down on ticketing itself.

That decision rests with the Cedar Rapids Police Department regardless of how the council votes, Assistant City Attorney Liz Jacobi said at the meeting.

Still, many view the vote is barometer of support for automated ticketing. In his letter requesting an opinion, Hart noted that “the council will soon discuss and vote to turn the cameras back on, which will increase safety.”

The measure is expected to pass as a majority of council members, including Hart, have told The Gazette they favor resuming the program.

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In his letter, Hart asked whether he could abstain from voting but still participate in the discussion. The panel advised him not to.

“Any comments would be a violation of the rules,” Baker wrote.

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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