Bus Shelter Ad Debate Puts Focus on Council; Members Face Questions over Conflicts of Interest

Article excerpt

Byline: TIA MITCHELL

A split vote on a controversial bus shelter advertising plan a few months ago has come back to haunt the Jacksonville City Council, with two more members now facing questions about possible conflicts of interest.

At least three council members voted without disclosing their working relationships with parties on either side of the hotly contested bus shelter issue.

Earlier this week, the Times-Union reported that council Vice President Jack Webb, an attorney, had been hired by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to help with collective bargaining issues.

The JTA had pushed the council to change city law to allow the shelter ads, a stance Webb supported in the October vote on the measure, which passed 10-6.

On Wednesday, there were more revelations of potential conflicts:

-Councilman John Crescimbeni is the paid part-time executive director of Scenic Florida, the statewide affiliate of a Jacksonville nonprofit that lobbied against the bus shelter ads. He took that position, too, voting "no" in October.

-Councilman Bill Bishop is a vice president and board member of Scenic Florida. He also voted against the measure.

Council President Richard Clark said he's concerned several of his colleagues now appear to have close ties to the parties involved in the debate - and voted without making those facts public.

"In the spirit of full disclosure, those are things people want to know," he said.

Clark said he will ask the General Counsel's Office to clarify public disclosure rules for council members. He also plans to urge his colleagues to err on the side of caution whenever a business or organization they are personally involved with comes before the council.

"We all have relationships; we all have real jobs; we all have to earn a living," Clark said. "But we really need to be above reproach here."

Jacksonville University political science professor Stephen Baker agreed, saying council members should "err on the side of caution" in divulging potential conflicts.

SCENIC OVERSIGHTS?

Scenic Jacksonville and Scenic Florida were founded by local attorney Bill Brinton. Their Web sites are hosted by the same company, and Scenic Jacksonville lists Scenic Florida's office as its mailing address.

Bishop, Crescimbeni and Brinton insist Scenic Florida has no active involvement in the Jacksonville bus shelter controversy.

Bishop said he joined the Scenic Florida board shortly after he was elected to the City Council in 2007. The position is voluntary, he said.

When Scenic Jacksonville and other nonprofits lobbied against JTA's efforts to place advertising on bus shelters, Bishop said he saw no need to disclose his leadership role with the state organization

"There is no inconsistency that I happen to be a member of an organization that is opposed to bus shelter advertising and billboards," Bishop said. "I am personally opposed to bus shelter advertising and billboards. …