But as of the beginning of this week, Hawks seemed to be the only member of the council who was adhering to the county’s conflict-of-interest policy, though the issue and The Times-Independent’s questions about it may have had other council members scrambling to get into compliance.
Meanwhile, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald may be considering changes to the ethics policy suggested by the Utah Attorney General’s Office Civil Review Committee after it looked at the complaint against Hawks earlier this month. Though she was found to have been in violation of county policy and thinks the policy may be too stringent, even Hawks is leery of changing conflict-of-interest rules.
“It’s written to prevent people from lining their pockets … but I think it goes too far,” Hawks said Tuesday. However, “I would still be very careful about making any changes. You don’t want to write policy based on what happened to me.”
On Tuesday, Fitzgerald released a statement summarizing his review of an ethics complaint against Hawks, which found that she had been in violation of the county’s ethics rules, but not the state’s, when she participated in matters involving bed and breakfasts.
“Because Ms. 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 wrote.
Hawks opened a bed-and-breakfast business — Cider House Inn — in February of last year. During the course of 2017, after her business opened, Hawks debated and voted on issues relative to bed and breakfasts (but not involving hers particularly) on several occasions. She had also failed to file a conflict-of-interest disclosure form as required.
In December, former County Council Member Lynn Jackson filed a complaint with both Fitzgerald and the Utah Attorney General’s Office alleging that Hawks should have recused herself from participating in any way from matters involving bed and breakfasts.
“This blatant disregard for conflict of interest and policy needs to stop immediately,” Jackson wrote in his formal complaint.
On Wednesday, Jackson told The Times-Independent, “Mission accomplished,” noting that Hawks had recused herself from issues dealing with short-term rentals when the matter had been brought before the council over the course of the last two months.
On Feb. 20 and again on March 6, the council considered a resolution taking the Utah Legislature to task for its passage of a bill that would not allow local governments to regulate the online advertisements of short-term rentals. Hawks recused herself. She has also filed the required disclosure form, dated March 7.
But council members Rory Paxman and Curtis Wells, both of whom have employment or investment interests in short-term accommodations, did not recuse themselves from consideration of the resolution (though Wells did not vote on it on March 6, being absent from that meeting).
“Perhaps in the future they need to recuse,” Jackson said. “The public needs to know that they’ve got people up there voting on things they don’t have a financial interest in.”
Wells, however, says too strict a policy on conflicts of interest could be counter-productive, especially in a community as small Grand County. Preventing people from abusing their positions to gain financially or get unfair advantage is the point of ethics rules, he said Wednesday.
But if the ordinance or its interpretation is so stringent that recusals are required too often or for things too minor, it could have a paralyzing effect, he argued.
Until early this week, no council member other than Hawks had filed disclosure forms. On Tuesday, Council Chair Mary McGann filed hers. Paxman and Council Member Evan Clapper filed their disclosures both on Wednesday.
Wells told The Times-Independent he had encountered difficulty finding out which county office held the blank disclosure forms. Neither County Clerk/Auditor Diana Carrol nor County Administrator Ruth Dillon knew of them. Hawks, too, said she had the same problem.
The forms are held in the county’s human resources office. Grand County Human Resources Director John West, in a response to a question from The Times-Independent about the forms, wrote in an email Wednesday that they had been sent to council members on March 23.
There is no criminal penalty for violating the county’s conflict-of-interest policy, Fitzgerald said in an interview Monday. The remedy for Hawks’ violation is to go back into the record and strike her votes on the matters in question, he said.
“Her votes didn’t affect any outcome, as far as I’m aware,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think it actually changes anything that was voted on.”
Assistant Utah Attorney General Brian Nalder and legal assistant Ed Lombard said the AG’s Office “will be looking to confirm” that whatever corrective action is necessary does indeed happen.
Other than that, “The Civil Review Committee has chosen not to take any further action,” Lombard said.
He did say, though, “We made some general policy suggestions.”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Grand County Council Member Evan Clapper filed his conflict-of-interest disclosure form on Wednesday, March 28. The information did not reach The Times-Independent in time for the print version.