Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross shouldn't have voted to advance a new city hall project in December 2008 and February of this year because he had a conflict of interest, the Nevada Ethics Commission ruled Friday.
He should have abstained from votes on Dec. 3 and Feb. 18, commissioners ruled, citing evidence that the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, where Ross serves as secretary-treasurer, was pursuing a labor deal with Forest City, the new city hall's developer at the time.
"Obviously I don't agree with that," Ross said of the commission's ruling. "I believe I followed the counsel of the Ethics Commission and what I heard from my own counsel."
Commissioners voted 4-1 -- with Commissioner Gregory Gale casting the only "no" vote -- that Ross should have abstained from the votes and disclosed his relationship with the trades council at the Dec. 3 meeting.
He made that disclosure at the Feb. 18 meeting.
The commission voted unanimously that the votes at issue were not 'willful,' meaning there are no civil penalties attached. If the violations had been found to be willful, Ross could have faced fines.
Gale said he was satisfied that the trades council was not, in fact, going after a labor deal at the time.
There was some confusion on that point.
Trades council president Rick Johnson testified Thursday that he started talking with Forest City in November or December of 2008.
He returned on Friday to say he was mistaken, and provided phone and e-mail records that he said show he didn't contact Forest City until April, when he sent a draft labor agreement to Forest City.
The last time Ross voted on the city hall project was Feb. 18. He abstained from subsequent votes.
"I was incorrect yesterday," Johnson said. "We're in constant negotiations. I wasn't sure of the exact date."
Commission member Mark Hutchison didn't buy it. By Johnson's own admission, he noted, discussions of a labor agreement don't start by sending a draft agreement.
"Maybe it happened, but it'd be highly unusual," Hutchison said. "I found that testimony to be somewhat suspect. It didn't ring true to me."
Ross and Steve Redlinger, the trades council's former spokesman and lobbyist, said Johnson made a mistake in his Thursday testimony.
"He was unprepared to talk about dates," Redlinger said.
If the trades council was in discussions at the time, Ross said, "I would not have voted." In more recent votes, Ross has abstained and cited the talks between Forest City and the trades council as the reason.
The original ethics complaint was filed in February and cited the Dec. 3 and Feb. 18 votes, as well as another city hall voted on Nov. 19, 2008. It also cited Ross' votes in favor of a U.S. 95 interchange project, a casino at Kyle Canyon and a multitude of consent agenda items that allegedly benefited construction unions.
The Kyle Canyon and consent agenda items were dismissed before this week's hearing, and commissioners voted unanimously Friday to dismiss the U.S. 95 complaint.
"It's clear that Councilman Ross did violate ethics," said Tyson Wrensch, one of the three Ward 6 residents who filed the complaint. "It gives citizens like me hope that we can make a difference."
Wrensch backed Ross' opponent in this year's municipal elections and said he's been unhappy with many of Ross' votes.
"As for what's next, I don't know. We'll still be watching and we may be back here," Wrensch said, adding Ross appears to be serving two masters. "The best thing for him to do is to pick a job."
This is not Ross' first trip to the Ethics Commission. He sought an advisory opinion in 2007 to see if he could fill the trades council job while being a sitting councilman.
He was told that it's not an automatic conflict of interest, but that he'd have to be careful because the trades council represents construction unions and promotes the use of union labor.
Metaphors trotted out Friday included "stepping on a land mine," swimming in shark-infested waters, and "a swamp full of alligators."
In the future, Ross will probably issue a blanket declaration at the beginning of council meetings that he works with the labor unions. He doesn't automatically have to abstain from a vote involving a construction project, but he must be more careful, Hutchison said.
"What he didn't do is think about the downstream analysis," he said, such as the fact that a vote to approve a project one day could lead to union jobs down the line. "There are downstream ways in which your interests or the trade unions' interests could be affected."
Contact reporter Alan Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-229-6435.