Mayoral candidates clash again over whether contract vote was unethical

Kenny Smith (center) and Vi Lyles (right) participate in a WFAE mayoral debate Tuesday morning.
Kenny Smith (center) and Vi Lyles (right) participate in a WFAE mayoral debate Tuesday morning. sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Mayoral candidate Vi Lyles defended herself Monday night against an attack made her opponent, Kenny Smith, that her “conflicts of interest are so outrageous.”

In a digital ad, Smith criticized Lyles, a Democrat, for a September vote in which council awarded a $43 million contract for convention center expansion to a consortium that includes R.J. Leeper Construction. Lyles’ son Kwame is employed as a project manager for the company.

Lyles brought up the vote during Monday’s council meeting. Council was voting to award another contract for an airport expansion that also included R.J. Leeper Construction.

She asked City Attorney Bob Hagemann to address the public about whether she should have recused herself. Hagemann said that people may disagree on how state law is written, but he said the law states that not only would Lyles be allowed to vote, the law requires her to vote.

State law allows for elected officials to recuse themselves if they would receive a direct financial interest from a vote. He said there is no mention about the financial interest of children.

Hagemann said the state wants elected officials to not deliberately avoid difficult political votes. So it only allows for recusal in a few narrow instances.

While Lyles may have been required to vote on the issue, she could have told her colleagues and the public before the vote that her son works for the firm.

“To me this is about judgment, trust and transparency,” said Smith, a Republican.

Hagemann’s opinion that Lyles was required to vote raises questions about how other elected officials have handled conflicts – and whether Hagemann should have allowed them to recuse themselves.

For instance, former Mayor Dan Clodfelter would publicly recuse himself from discussions that involved his employer, Parker Poe. The law firm handled some of the city’s bond work.

Former council member David Howard would publicly recuse himself from votes that involved his former employer, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership. Former mayor Anthony Foxx also recused himself from votes that involved his former employer, the bus maker DesignLine.

Lyles and Smith participated in a Tuesday morning debate at Spirit Square hosted by WFAE. Smith did not mention the Leeper votes.

Smith often criticized Roberts, whom Lyles defeated in the Democratic primary last month.

“We have seen what happens when we have a mayor without leadership skills,” Smith said. “(Being an effective mayor) is about assuming the leadership role.”

Lyles was asked why she is the Democratic nominee.

“People often say I agree with Jennifer Roberts on a number of issues,” she said. “That may be true around issues like how do we move our community forward. What I would say is, I believe one reason she isn’t sitting here is because I won the primary. I won the primary because every day I go and talk to voters about what’s important.”

Lyles’ campaign announced Tuesday that she has been endorsed by Foxx, the former mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs