Mayor seeks conflict advice

Published 8:56 pm Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mayor Linda T. Johnson has asked the city attorney’s office to look into a policy guiding council members on conflicts of interest.

Her suggestion passed in Wednesday’s meeting. The move comes in the continuing fallout of a Virginian-Pilot investigation that alleges Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, a TowneBank executive, took many votes on issues affecting developers who had received financing from the bank.

Johnson and Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim resigned their respective seats on the bank’s community boards about a week after the Pilot published its first story about Sessoms. Johnson also recused herself from a discussion and vote on a Bridge Road rezoning this Wednesday, despite the fact she says she had no conflict, because someone told her the developers have received TowneBank financing.

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“I did not have to recuse myself,” she said. “There is no conflict there. I wanted to make sure I was completely above perception.”

Earlier this year, Johnson participated in discussion about the Bridge Road project, voted on a motion to send it back to the Planning Commission and voted to continue it until a later date. However, she said she did not know of the developer’s TowneBank financing at the time.

“Honestly, I did not know until last week when someone brought it to my attention,” she said. “I have no way of knowing unless someone wants to tell me.”

From June 2010 to September of this year, Johnson said, she accumulated less than $4,900 in deferred compensation for serving on the bank’s community board. “Clearly, that does not rise to the conflict of interest laws,” she said.

The state’s conflict of interest law defines having a personal interest as compensation that rises above $5,000 annually.

“According to conflict laws, you do not have to recuse yourself, but then what about perception of impropriety? It doesn’t speak to perception of impropriety.”

The purpose of the board, she said, is to feed the community-minded bank involvement ideas.

“The community boards basically look at ways they can be helpful within the community,” she said, noting that it’s a “very prevalent practice” for banks to have prominent members of the community, including elected officials, on their boards.

Johnson is a real estate agent for Prudential Towne Realty, which is related to TowneBank. However, she said in Wednesday’s meeting that she is an independent agent and gets paid only by her sellers.

“I don’t make a dime any other way,” she said.

The state does have a conflict of interest law for elected officials, but Johnson said she’s interested in a policy that might go even further, including charitable boards that council members might sit on that receive money from the city.

“I think we need to start looking at boards that any of us sit on that we have in our budget,” she said. “It’s something I think we really need to do.”