Mayor Lewis K. Billings is shifting his personal investments away from Provo in an attempt to erase perceptions of impropriety.
But he isn't giving up interest in a housing project he hopes to complete after he leaves office.
Questions regarding Billings' motives in a land deal with the city stung him last fall and again three weeks ago."I wanted the people of Provo to feel like I'm not just down here trying to feather my nest," said the first-term mayor. "I'm trying to show there's no decision that I'm going to make that will help me and make it better for me."
Billings made a living investing in various business ventures prior to being elected to office. Some were successful, some were not. He said his focus has changed since he assumed the mayor's chair and working as Provo's chief administrative officer for nearly two years prior to that.
"I'm not as motivated by money as I have to confess I was at one time in my life," said Billings, who briefly studied chemical engineering and business at Brigham Young University.
Controversy about a proposed land transaction between Billings and the city arose during the mayoral campaign last year. The city holds an option on 139 acres Billings and a partner own in a southeast Provo area known as Ironton since 1992. Detractors called it a conflict of interest for the mayor to have the ability to buy property for Provo from his own company, Ironton Development Corp. Billings bought the land to develop as a business park.
The City Council last month authorized purchase of the ground (a contaminated old steel mill site that U.S. Steel has agreed to clean up) for $3,000 an acre, totaling $417,000. Billings did not attend meetings regarding Ironton.
During the campaign, Billings promised to put the property in a blind trust, which he now has done, said his attorney Richard Hill. All parcels the mayor owns in Ironton under various names such a Billings Technology Park Associates and Ironton Development Corp., are consolidated into a company called LKB Blind Trust.
"A blind trust is a thing over which he has no control," Hill said.
A Salt Lake attorney, whom Billings has met once, serves as trustee. The trustee is free to manage the assets as he sees fit as long as it's in the best interest of the beneficiary. He will send Billings quarterly reports. Proceeds from the sale of the Ironton property will go to the trust. Billings won't see his share of the money until he's out of office.
The mayor is under no obligation to take the unusual and expensive step of setting up a blind trust. Hill said Billings wants to be above reproach and criticism.
Not all of Billings' Ironton holdings are part of the blind trust.
The option agreement allows Billings to sell a 10-acre parcel to a third party. A buyer emerged just days before the council voted to exercise the city's option on the 139 acres. That caused heartburn for some council members who thought the city was buying a total of 149 acres.
Billings is now leasing the smaller piece to an individual who also has an option to buy it for $55,000 per acre. The city has the right to match the offer, but that's unlikely given the high price.
Billings derives income as president of Ironton Development Corp., a venture that brought companies such as Matrixx Marketing to Provo in the 1980s. He also owns rental units in the city.
But Billings, whose annual mayoral salary is $56,810, said he's no longer comfortable doing business in the city.
"If I wasn't mayor, I wouldn't be trying to move my investments out of Provo," he said. "I can't get it done overnight, but I'm moving in that direction."
One venture that Billings won't give up, however, is a housing development known as East Point. He's the major investor in a partnership that is working on the project about which Billings declines to reveal details. Billings said he'd hoped to have the development finished before he started working for the city in 1995. East Point will be on the back burner during his term in office, he said.
The Provo Community Development Department has not received any applications for a project called East Point.