WHEN SHE COULD get a word in edgewise, the waitress served steaming enchiladas, tortillas and omelettes with a warning that the plates were hot.

No hotter, though, than the fiery discussion playing out during the lunch hour Friday around a window table at Joe Vera's Restaurant on Provo's Center Street.

A congressman's aide, a state legislator, at least two potential mayoral candidates, Realtors, developers and businessmen argued over an ordinance being considered by the Provo City Council that could have far-reaching ramifications.

The proposal would set a new standard in Utah politics for how elected officials should act when they have a conflict of interest.

As proposed, the Provo ordinance could cover only Provo City Council members and residents who serve on Provo city boards and commissions. But some state legislators following the process were concerned a stiffer standard in Provo could make them look bad by comparison.

Provo City Council members could not, under the proposed ordinance, lobby fellow council members behind the scenes or speak to the council in meetings about any project that needed council approval and that would provide them with a direct economic benefit.

A draft of the proposal states a council member with a conflict of interest on an item:

• Could not vote on the matter.

• Could not discuss it with any other council member (no lobbying for yourself allowed!)

• Would have to step down from his or her council seat during discussion.

• And would have to leave the chambers during the council's discussion.

A council member with a conflict of interest could still submit written material to bolster a proposed project.

Utah County Realtors CEO Taylor Oldroyd, a former Provo employee, invited 20 people to the lunch to discuss the ordinance. (The subject line of his e-mail was "Provo City Council proposal must be stopped.")

A dozen showed up, plus two interlopers — Provo City Councilman George Stewart and council attorney Neil Lindberg.

Stewart and Lindberg adamantly defended their proposal against the objections of Realtors and developers who complained the ordinance would have a chilling effect, discouraging them and other business people from serving on city boards or commissions or running for City Council if the ordinance passed.

Once the bickering ended, a compromise emerged.

Stewart made a phone call and then directed Lindberg to remove city boards and commissions from the proposed ordinance.

That was a victory for the businessmen who feel like more business-oriented people should serve on city boards and commissions, a position Stewart supported.

Another casualty of the meeting could be the provision to force council members with a conflict of interest to leave the room during discussion on a project that could directly benefit them.

Some council members are uncomfortable discussing another member's business with him or her present.

That's just goofy.

Nothing that is said or done would be hidden because the council member could step outside and watch everything on the TV in the Provo City Center lobby. The potential for hurt feelings isn't diminished.

If the council member were to stay, rules already prohibit reaction in the council chambers.

Politicians have to make tough decisions about the economic futures of others all the time, often under intense scrutiny and pressure, and with those people present. It's uncomfortable, but it's part of the job.

The proposed ordinance would introduce a higher standard of ethical conduct in a case where a conflict of interest clearly existed.

It seems like stretch to say that it is unethical for someone to remain in the room or more ethical to wait outside.


Utah County Bureau Chief Tad Walch lives with his wife and five children in Provo, their home for the past 21 years. E-mail [email protected].