As St. Petersburg's mayor from 1987 until this spring, Robert Ulrich was as active and influential as anyone in support of the city's controversial downtown redevelopment plans. Now Ulrich has become a partner in the law firm that represents the Bay Plaza Cos., the master developer chosen by Ulrich and other council members to direct the city project. On its face, Ulrich's precipitant jump from the mayor's office to the offices of Bay Plaza's lawyers is perfectly legal. However, it only adds to the sense that some current and former city officials became too closely associated with the private developers to make objective judgments on behalf of the residents they were elected or appointed to represent. The unusual partnership between the city and Bay Plaza demands that city officials maintain a strict separation between their public responsibilities and the developer's private interests. That line has been blurred before, and Ulrich's move further erases it.
The resulting appearance of conflict is as harmful to Bay Plaza as it is to the city. With its development plans on hold and its founding president having recently resigned because of personal financial troubles, Bay Plaza needs to hang onto as much credibility as it can salvage. Unfortunately, the troubled development project's credibility problems are only aggravated by the news about Ulrich's new job.
If Ulrich had been a state official, he would be prohibited from making this kind of revolving-door move so soon after leaving office. A state executive-branch or judicial-branch official must wait two years before entering into any employment or contractual relationship with a private entity that either directly or indirectly benefited from a public contract that was within that official's responsibility. Those laws are intended to prevent under-the-table deals in which former state officials might receive delayed payoffs from private firms that profited from their public decisions.
Ulrich says he would seek a legal opinion before becoming directly involved in representing Bay Plaza in its dealings with the city, but that would not entirely remove the appearance of conflict. As a shareholder in the law firm representing the city master developer, he now stands to profit indirectly from his prior votes in support of Bay Plaza, whether or not he personally represents the developers in the future.
St. Petersburg's City Council can help to prevent future conflicts by adopting ethical standards similar to those now in effect on the state level. The Bay Plaza development is so crucial to the city, and the public's faith in the project has become so fragile, that city officials should make every effort to remove even the appearance of conflict in decisions related to the project's future.