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Bikeshare program's hire of mayor's son raises conflict-of-interest concerns

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Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has built a reputation on bikes: riding one wherever he goes, naming 2013 the Year of the Bike and promoting the installation of additional bike lanes around the city. And he's apparently passed that love down to his son Will, who was hired in early 2014 as program manager of the nonprofit GreenBike bike-share program.

Jason Mathis, the executive director of the Downtown Alliance, says he understands the possible conflict of interestarising from the Alliance's affiliated nonprofit hiring Will Becker, given the amount of funding the program receives from the city—approximately $650,000 since 2013.

But Mathis also says that shouldn't get in the way of hiring the right candidate for the job, no matter who their daddy is.

"It would be bullshit to hire someone because of who they're related to, and it would also be bullshit to not hire the best candidate just because of who they're related to," Mathis says. "And Will was, and still is, far and away the best candidate."

But hiring a good candidate to work for a good program can still be a bad decision, according to District 4 Councilman Luke Garrott, who is challenging Becker in this year's mayoral election.

Perceptions of favoritism, Garrott says, gradually erode the public's trust. "If government is just another way to pass out favors, it's really harmful to people who care about good government," he says.

The GreenBike program, a separate but partnering organization with the Downtown Alliance, offers green bicyclesfor short-term rent to encourage people to burn more calories and fewer fossil fuels in getting around the capital city.

Since 2013, more than 60 percent of the roughly $1 million the program has raised came from the city, funding the construction of 20 bike stations. In 2014, the program added 70 bikes, for a total of 150 bikes. 2014 also saw a 162 percent increase in ridership.

In December 2013, GreenBike's former program manager stepped down, and within two months, Will Becker was hired on at a salary of $42,000 a year, a $5,000 increase from his predecessor.

GreenBike's director, Ben Bolte, says that the increase in the salary was necessary given the demands of the position.

Will Becker says there was no favoritism involved in his hire, but that it was his previous work with Salt Lake County, especially in developing the county's Bicycle Best Practices document, that got him the job.

"I felt like I worked hard to get into my position and was hired because of my background and experience," Will says.

Bolte says that the funding that has come from the city has gone toward only bikes and stations—not staff salaries or operational expenses, which come through corporate sponsorships.

And when Will took the job in February 2014, the Mayor's Office decided to not include funding for GreenBike in the mayor's budget for the first time since the start of the program, because of the potential conflict.

"It would be the worst quid pro quo in the world if [Becker] was, like, 'Hire my son and I promise I won't fund you anymore,'" Bolte says.

In December 2014, Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold did make an amendment to the mayor's budget to fund $150,000 to the program through the city.

Penfold enjoys a strong relationship with the mayor, having received from Becker one of his largest donations of $1,500 in the 2013 election. Penfold's Avenues district is also where Becker built his political base, back when he represented the area as a member of the Legislature.

Penfold says he knew of Will's employment by the bike-share program, but didn't consult with, nor was consulted by, the mayor about the program, and pushed for the funding only because of the success of the program.

"Every time we add stations and expand the diameter of the service area, we get better ridership," Penfold says.

Mathis says there was no prodding from the mayor to the council to fund the bike program.

For Garrott, there are "troubling" implications about this hire that extend beyond the actual bike-share program, since the Downtown Alliance is also contracted through the mayor's budget to collect a property assessment to do its promotion of downtown.

Mayor's Office spokesman Art Raymond, however, says that contract is also overseen by the council, and points out the mayor's decision to not fund the program since his son's hire.

"Mayor Becker is very sensitive to issues of real or perceived conflict of interest and has certainly taken specific action to ensure his separation on this issue," Raymond says.

But Garrott sees a pattern going back to 2008, when Ralph chose his brother to spearhead a taskforce on advancing the Broadway-style theater project downtown, and to spring 2014, when Becker nominated Matt Lyon, then executive director of the Utah State Democratic Party—and Ralph's former campaign manager—to the Salt Lake Planning Commission.

"It is noxious to the relationship of government and its citizens if the perception of government cronyism exists," Garrott says, adding, "And in the case of government ethics, perception is reality."

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