Raleigh mayor sits out development hearings to avoid conflict of interest

·4 min read

Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin recused herself twice from this week’s City Council meeting due to potential conflicts of interest involving her employer.

The mayor didn’t participate in a public hearing on the proposed East End Market development just east of Five Points because her employer, Barnhill Contracting Co., began working on the project in 2019.

The other recusal was during a public hearing on giving $110,000 in economic incentives to biotechnology company Gilead Sciences, which plans to bring 275 jobs and a $14 million investment to the city.

“I spoke with the city attorney about this earlier,” Baldwin said Tuesday night. “My employer was asked to submit a proposal on this. So there is no guarantee that we would move forward, but I want to steer clear of any potential conflict.”

City Attorney Robin Tatum agreed, saying, “I think if there is any chance that your company is going to be awarded work that it’s best for you to ask to be recused.”

Baldwin then muted her computer and turned off her video for that portion of the virtual meeting.

In a follow-up email with The News & Observer, Tatum said allowing the mayor to recuse herself was “the appropriate and safest course” and that she evaluates these questions “on a case-by-case basis.”

“The whole idea,” Baldwin said in an interview Friday, “is making sure you are not part of a vote where you have a conflict, so that is what I have done. I have been very proactive and open about it.”

Job drew criticism

Baldwin was hired as the director of business development for Barnhill Contracting Co.’s Triangle and Streamline Divisions in May 2020. She faced criticism for accepting the job soon after the construction company received a $6.3 million city contract. Baldwin began interviewing for the job nine days after Barnhill won the contract. She was not interviewing nor contacted about the job when she voted in favor of the contract, she said.

Since then she’s been derisively called “Mayor Barnhill” by critics, some arguing she shouldn’t vote on any rezoning because it could mean future work for her employer.

During last year’s protests, a frequent demand by activists was for her to resign from her position or resign as mayor. At one point, a banner was unfurled in downtown that read “Mayor MAB and Barnhill are using Raleigh PD to protest buildings not Black lives.”

Frayda Bluestein, a professor of public law at the UNC School of Government, has written about conflicts of interest outlined in state law.

“When it comes to a situation in which a (council) member’s employer is or may be involved I’ve opined that a person should ask the board to excuse them because the member may feel torn between what is best for the city and what is best for their employer,” she said in an email with The N&O.

But that likely doesn’t apply to every rezoning, she said.

“It doesn’t seem likely that the mayor’s employer would be involved in all rezonings,” Bluestein said. “There should be a reasonable possibility that her employer would be involved.”

In most cases, a contracting company has been selected by the time a project reaches the rezoning process, Baldwin said.

“I would certainly know if we were part of a rezoning, and that is evident with the East End Market,” Baldwin said. “That project Barnhill started working on long before I came on board, but part of my duty and my responsibility is to be proactive to make sure that I am communicating with the city attorney if I feel there is any appearance of a conflict and then working with her to ensure that I remove myself from that conflict.”

Her work at Barnhill is similar to her previous job as vice president at Holt Brothers Construction and executive director of the Holt Brothers Foundation, which supports children who have a parent with cancer.

“I have a 12-year history of service,” Baldwn said. “I worked for an engineering firm. I worked for Holt Brothers, and now I’m working for Barnhill. I think that my reputation for being open and honest precedes itself. I don’t have that concern because of how I have handled myself, how I’ve conducted myself,and how I’ve conducted business has always been on the up and up.”