Legislator Martha Robertson (D-Dryden) made a surprise announcement at the June 7 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature – she recused herself from the discussion and vote on the Old Library redevelopment proposals. In what has thus far been a tightly contested issue with an outpouring of public comment, Robertson’s recusal could easily impact the outcome.
According to the Federal Election Commission, in 2013 and 2014 – during Robertson’s failed congressional bid – Travis Hyde Properties donated $2,000 to her campaign. Also, owner Frost Travis personally donated $5,200, while his wife Katherine donated $2,600. Former Travis Hyde owner Mack Travis – Frost’s father – donated $5,150 and his wife Carol donated $5,280.
The Travis family donations along with the company’s donation total up to more than $20,000. That could be a potential conflict of interest for Robertson because Travis Hyde Properties is one of the developers under consideration for the Old Library project.
Robertson noted that, before the 2014 election, she had recused herself from the Old Library Committee because of those contributions. After the election, though, she didn’t think it was problematic to vote on projects involving former donors.
She said, “It didn’t occur to me – since I knew I wasn’t running for Congress again and I knew I wasn’t up for the legislature again for more than two years – it didn’t occur to me that there was any longer a conflict of interest of any sort … until I got a phone call today from the media. It appears that a member of this body pointed out to the media that I had received contributions from one of the proposers here.”
Though she did not publicly indicate which of her peers notified the media, in a later interview she said, “I been in public service more than 13 years and never seen such a debate that got so personal and it’s really disappointing. The implication that my vote was because of Frost Travis’s support of my campaign is deeply disappointing.”
The county’s code of ethics specifies a two-year look-back period for conflicts of interest, and thus any donors within the past two years would be considered possible conflicts. Robertson said that the two-year look-back was an addition in the most recent code of ethics revision, put into effect in July 2013. She said, “I was unaware of the details of the ethics code changes and apparently neither was the county attorney or the chair of the ethics board. It’s a new provision.”
In an interview, County Attorney Johnathan Wood said that the fact that Robertson did not recuse herself sooner may not necessarily result in any penalty. He said, “Absent some formal complaint the county wouldn’t take any action. If there was a formal complaint it would go to the Board of Ethics and it would determine if action was appropriate.” He said that, in the past, the Board of Ethics has not imposed penalties but has issued statements if someone violated a rule.
When the legislature voted on the Old Library project proposals in June, six legislators – including Robertson – favored the Travis Hyde project, while six favored the Franklin Properties project. There were two absences at that meeting, but instead of bringing the matter to a vote again at the first July meeting, it was sent back to committee.
To move forward, any winning proposal will require the backing of at least eight legislators.