Bill Carlson recuses himself from votes more than all colleagues combined. Should it matter?

Bill-Carlson-Art-3-Large
Carlson's frequent recusals raise questions about his ability to fulfill the duties of his office.

Tampa City Council Member Bill Carson recused himself from voting more times than the other six members combined. And the disclosure forms he’s supposed to fill out don’t disclose much about his voting conflicts.

Now, Carlson, who heads the local public relations firm Tucker/Hall, is at odds with City Attorney Gina Grimes on ethics.

Grimes said that’s a problem.

“The form says you’re required to identify the nature of the interest,” Grimes said. “In the forms he fills out, I don’t believe he uses sufficient information on the nature of what the conflict is that Tucker/Hall is involved in.”

Florida statute requires officials to vote unless there is a conflict of interest where the voting party could gain or lose money or favor. Officials can also recuse themselves to avoid the appearance of conflict. Any time an official recuses themself from a vote, they are required to fill out a voting conflict form. Section A of the form asks who stands to gain or lose, and section B asks for a description of the measure up for a vote and the nature of the conflict.

Florida Politics requested the conflict forms of each member of the City Council since they took office. In that two-and-a-half-year period, Carlson has recused himself about 40 times. The rest of the City Council has filed a combined 35 recusal forms.

In each of his forms, Carlson lists Tucker/Hall in section A as the party that stands to lose or gain.

The Zerweck dilemma

Both the city of Tampa’s Code of Ethics and Florida statute state that no public official shall maintain “a contractual relationship that will create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that will impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”

But what constitutes a “frequently recurring conflict” isn’t clearly defined. And the only precedent for determining if one exists stems from a 1982 lawsuit involving former Margate City Commissioner John Zerweck.

While serving on the Commission, Zerweck worked for a property development company. Because of that relationship, Zerweck recused himself from 42 votes between June of 1978 and January of 1980. The Florida Commission on Ethics found Zerweck violated the statute because his role in the company created a “frequently recurring conflict.”

“Everything flows from Zerweck,” ethics lawyer Mark Herron said. “But it’s not the be-all-end-all.”

The Zerweck case and Carlson’s position with Tucker/Hall present several similarities. In each case, both men went to the Ethics Commission for official opinions and were told their positions didn’t preempt them from serving. The opinions, however, did not mention a point at which a conflict would be created.

And another statute says the law on conflicts should not “impede unreasonably or unnecessarily the recruitment and retention by government of those best qualified to serve.” But according to the Zerweck opinion, “a primary objective of the Code of Ethics is that government officials avoid recurring situations in which there is a temptation to place personal gain, economic or otherwise, above the discharge of their fiduciary duty to the public.”

Herron said he would look at the number of overall votes compared to the number of recusals. In Tampa, City Council can vote on as many as 100 items during any given meeting. Carlson said that adds up to thousands of votes. Carlson and Herron said that the recusals account for a small percentage of actual votes.

“Mathematically, I’m sure he’s correct,” Grimes said. “But the issue is more specific than that. It’s the types of matters he has to recuse himself on and what the percentage is within those types.”

The nature of conflict

Grimes said she asked Carlson to be more specific on his forms.

“If it’s rezoning and Tucker/Hall has a relationship with a client, and Carlson recuses, but only says ‘the principal by whom I am retained has a client who has an interest in the property,’ that’s not sufficient,” Grimes said. “We know they have an interest. That’s why you have a voting conflict. The question is, is the interest of such a nature that they would gain or lose because of the vote. The more transparent we are, the more trust and confidence the public has in us.”

Carlson said he received an “unofficial” opinion from the Ethics Commission and believed he’s doing the right thing. Carlson said he is purposefully vague on his forms because some of his clients have non-disclosure agreements with Tucker/Hall that prevent him from being more specific.

“We’re very confident in how we fill them out,” he said. “That’s why I’m very careful about what I vote on. The fact that the City Attorney would give a legal opinion to a reporter in an area that’s not her practice area is not something she should do.”

But Grimes said that’s not good enough. Without more specificity, she said, the public has no way of knowing the nature of the conflict or with whom the conflict lies. Grimes said other Council members identify individuals involved in conflicts and how the conflict is created.

Council Member Guido Maniscalco has filed one voting conflict form for rezoning a property on Franklin Street near the Tampa Theatre. In Section A, he listed the party as Tampa Theatre Foundation, and in section B, he said, “I am a member of the Board of Directors of the Tampa Theatre Foundation for the Tampa Theatre, which is located adjacent to the subject parcel. In that capacity, I heard opposition to this petition. I am, therefore, abstaining to assure a fair proceeding free from potential bias and prejudice.”

City Council in April voted on a resolution authorizing Mayor Jane Castor to enter into an agreement with Tampa Electric Company for metering solar-powered traffic signals. Carlson recused himself. Tucker/Hall was listed in section A, and in section B, he wrote:

“The company by whom I am retained does business with a company that has an interest in this matter.”

Which company and the nature of the conflict of interest are undisclosed. It’s also one of about a dozen conflict forms Carlson has filled out involving TECO.

“If, in fact, we have multiple votes on TECO matters, the Ethics Commission would have to decide if TECO’s matters are so prominent or such a large portion of what our Council votes on that to recuse yourself from all TECO matters would create a frequently recurring conflict,” Grimes said.

But without more specificity, there’s no way to tell. And many of Carlson’s forms look similar. In an August 2020 vote involving a lease with the Tampa Museum of Art, section A listed Tucker Hall, and Section B said:

“The subject of this resolution involves a client with which I am affiliated.”

Water wars

Carlson’s conflicts have led to so much shade being thrown around Council chambers one could catch a cold. Most of it comes from fellow Council Member Charlie Miranda. Miranda and Carlson have gone back and forth arguing in the middle of Council meetings.

The feud stems from Carlson’s involvement with Tampa Bay Water. Tucker/Hall helped Tampa Bay Water brand itself and made about $800,000 from the company. Carlson resigned the contract before joining Council, which Grimes said eliminated any legal voting conflict. But whenever Carlson advocates for Tampa Water during Council meetings, Miranda takes notice.

“I’ve been, in my mind, thinking of what to do with a big sign that’s inside the Children’s Museum that says, ‘Tampa Bay Water: The distributor of all water in the region,’” Miranda said during an October meeting. “I’m gonna send them a letter, and I’m gonna ask the good people of the Children’s Museum, from 1998 to now, who brought that in, how they got it in, who’s paid who, who did they pay? I’m gonna ask a bunch of questions about that.”

Carlson believes the pushback is because of his opposition to the PURE, or Purify Usable Resources for the Environment, project that looks to purify wastewater into drinking water.

“The people who seek to profit from the $2.1 billion plus toilet-to-tap boondoggle will continue to make unsubstantiated claims against those of us who are trying to stop it until they reap millions at taxpayer expense,” he said.

Conflicting on conflicts

Carlson isn’t the only Council member who has disagreed with Grimes on ethics. Last week, John Dingfelder declined Grimes’ suggestion that he recuse himself from a vote involving a consultant suing him. Dingfelder said there was no bias because the matter before Council involved a different petitioner.

Carlson had his back.

“Is it the opinion of the City Attorney that in a case where there are two different applicants, and a consultant to one applicant files a lawsuit, that if the same consultant works on the other case that one of us has to recuse ourselves?” Carlson asked Grimes during the meeting.

Grimes said there’s a simple solution: Go to the Ethics Commission. Otherwise, she said, it’s not clear to the public whether Carlson is fulfilling his statutory obligations and voting when required.

“The Ethics Commission would have to decide that,” she said. “It’s a mixed question of facts and law. And it’s the easiest way to give him peace of mind to know he’s doing the right thing.”

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]



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