Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks should have recused herself from voting last year on issues related to bed-and-breakfast operations. But there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that she violated a state disclosure law, the Grand County Attorney’s office determined this week.
Former Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson had filed an ethics complaint alleging that Hawks – a B&B owner – improperly participated in a series of council discussions and votes last year regarding B&B zoning ordinances. Among other things, he claimed that Hawks’ conduct during those meetings violated Utah’s County Officers and Employees Disclosure Act, as well as a separate Grand County ordinance, and a county resolution.
Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald said that based on an opinion from outside legal counsel, as well as his own review and analysis, he could not make the determination that the state’s disclosure act had been violated. However, the county attorney noted that a related county ordinance goes one step further and requires elected officials to recuse themselves from participating in discussions – or voting on matters where conflicts of interest exist.
“Because (Mrs.) Hawks possesses a personal interest and investment in a B&B business which could be closely or directly impacted by any decisions the County Council makes regarding B&Bs (both positively and negatively), the Ordinance obligated her to recuse herself from participating in, commenting on, and voting on such matters,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.
Hawks said the county attorney’s opinion make it clear that she did not break the Disclosure Act.
“I was cleared, according to state statute,” she told the Moab Sun News.
As to the question of Grand County’s ordinance, she said, it can be read more strictly than state law.
“And in this case, it was,” she said.
If the county attorney’s office had asked other law firms for their input, she said, it might have received a couple of different opinions on the matter, although she has no interest in pursuing it further.
“It is what it is, and I’m willing to live with it,” Hawks said. “I don’t have any guilt or regrets about any wrongdoing.”
But Jackson said he believes that Fitzgerald found unqualified evidence that Hawks violated the county’s ordinance – although he disagrees with the county attorney’s findings that there isn’t enough evidence to find that the Disclosure Act was broken.
“It’s a lot of legalese, for sure, but at the end of the day, the last paragraph is clear: She broke the rules and procedures,” he said.
Jackson had argued that Hawks should have formally disclosed her B&B interests by a January 2017 deadline because she received a license to operate the business two months earlier. But Hawks told council members in late May of 2017 that she did not host her first B&B guest until February of last year, after the deadline had passed.
At that same meeting, Hawks cast the only dissenting vote against a council resolution to impose a six-month moratorium on new B&Bs in the county’s unincorporated areas. She voted with the majority in late November 2017 to extend that moratorium, although two weeks later, she again cast the lone vote against a council resolution to restrict future B&B operations in the county.
Jackson said that her votes on the matter clearly amounted to a conflict of interest.
“This was so blatant to me that I can’t believe I was the only one who picked up on it,” he said.
At the time she cast her vote against the resolution last December, Hawks said her votes supported a solution that would add competition to her existing bed-and-breakfast operation.
“I voted in a way that would possibly negatively impact my business,” she told the Moab Sun News.
But Jackson said that citizens have no way of knowing for sure whether or not that statement is true.
“The bottom line is it all gets too confusing when you have a direct conflict of interest,” he said. “It shouldn’t be left up to the public to try to figure it out.”
Ultimately, he said, it doesn’t matter if council members in Hawks’ situation say they’re going to vote against their personal interests.
“All we need to know is that our elected representatives are above board,” he said. “It’s a transparency issue with the public, and in this case, I think there was an obvious conflict.”
Jackson himself was the target of ethics complaints during his time on the county council, and he said his decision to file the complaint against Hawks was a “little bit of a message” to progressives in Grand County.
Local residents Bill Love and John Weisheit filed the complaints that centered around Jackson’s votes as a council member, based on his past work as a potash industry consultant. In response to the first complaint from Love, Fitzgerald’s office determined that Jackson had not violated any state or county ordinances, and acted in an ethical manner while he was performing his duties. Two years later, a third-party investigation that Fitzgerald’s office commissioned again found no evidence that Jackson was guilty of any wrongdoing, although Fitzgerald encouraged council members to disclose any past financial ties that could influence their opinions and votes.
“They came after me twice with nothing, and they were just going to sit back … people were going to look the other way (with Hawks)? No,” Jackson said. “These apply both ways.”
Hawks questioned why Jackson’s complaint began and ended with her. Without mentioning them by name, she said that two other council members “of Mr. Jackson’s political persuasion” could conceivably have conflicts of interest on the B&B issue.
“(His complaint) was politically motivated,” she said.
In recent months, she said, she has recused herself from council discussions about B&Bs.
“It was very difficult to sit there and stay quiet,” she said.
But Jackson said he believes that Hawks did the right thing in those instances.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said.
In a statement, Fitzgerald said that elected officials should ideally file written disclosure statements as soon as reasonably practicable when they acquire any business interest that may be subject to the Disclosure Act.
However, there may be situations where it may be appropriate for elected officials to weigh in on an issue, he said, even if that person has a conflict of interest. In those cases, he said, the council may suspend the related county ordinance by a two-thirds majority vote of remaining members who are present.
“Absent an appropriate election by the Council to suspend the Ordinance, however, (Mrs.) Hawks should recuse herself from any decision involving B&Bs in her capacity as a County Councilmember,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Hawks said she hadn’t even remembered that provision at the time she cast her votes last year. But in the future, she said, she may ask the council to consider it.
“I’ll ask the council to suspend (the ordinance) if I feel the need to speak about it, and nobody else is,” she said.
But Fitzgerald finds insufficient evidence that council member violated state law