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For local officials with family ties, transparency counts

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Council member Jacob Frey
Council member Jacob Frey tries to answer protestors' questions Dec. 4, 2014 in the council offices at Minneapolis City Hall.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2014

Minneapolis City Council member and mayoral hopeful Jacob Frey got married last July, and his wife is a lobbyist. Sarah Clarke works for Hylden Advocacy and Law, which lobbies state and local governments, including Minneapolis.

In March of last year, the firm represented an industry group which opposed a proposed ban on plastic carry-out bags. Frey says that didn't present a conflict of interest for him.

"My wife lobbies exclusively over at the state Capitol. She hasn't touched on any city issues that I've been involved in," he said. "And on the particular issue of the plastic bags. I actually didn't even vote in the way that the firm was lobbying."

Frey, however, said later that he misspoke and that his wife has lobbied St. Paul and other metro area governments.

Jacob Frey
Jacob Frey, recently elected to the Minneapolis City Council representing Ward 3, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 at MPR studios in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2013

Frey was one of 10 council members who voted to approve the ban. But Frey initially neglected to note his wife's employment on a form he and other Minneapolis elected officials have to file every January. 

The so-called statement of economic interest forms require city officials to disclose any outside sources of compensation, along with that of their spouses or domestic partners.

Frey said the omission was not intentional. He said he realized his mistake as he was filing his joint tax return, and  filed an amended statement last week.  

Frey added that even before he and his wife were married, they made sure to cross every 't' and dot every 'i'.

"We checked with the attorneys. We checked with the ethics officer, just to make sure that everything we were doing was absolutely correct and right by the law. And it all checked out and we are."

Hodges inauguration
New Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, with her husband Gary Cunningham by her side, after taking the oath of office Thursday, Jan. 2, 2013.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2013

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who's running for reelection, also initially neglected to include required information about her spouse.

Hodges married a member of the Metropolitan Council in 2011, but hadn't disclosed her husband's source of compensation until Thursday. Hodges says the question about spousal income was confusing.

"The question was asked in a different way than it is now. And I was led to understand that it was asking if my husband owned a business, which he does not."

Hodges' husband, Gary Cunningham, not only serves on the Met Council, but is also the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, a nonprofit group that provides training and economic assistance for minority-owned business.

Hodges says when she filled out  a new form online earlier this year, she didn't include that information about Cunningham because she didn't see an option for it in the pull down menu.

She acknowledges it was her responsibility to get clarification and recently filed an amended form . Hodges added that while it's not a secret who she's married to, she often makes a point of telling people, in case they don't already know.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges
Mayor Betsy Hodges delivers the 2016 State of the City address at MacPhail Center for Music May 17, 2016.
Tom Baker for MPR News 2016

Officials from other cities have raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest between city officials and the Met Council.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland told legislators this week that putting mayors or city council members on the council could divide their loyalties on development or other issues over which the council has jurisdiction. The Met Council and the city of Minneapolis have also battled over matters like routing trains on the Southwest Corridor light rail project.

Hodges said her husband's work on the Met Council or MEDA hasn't been an issue yet, but she said if questions of conflict of interest arise, full disclosure is the first step.  As mayor, Hodges doesn't have a vote.

"I can't recuse myself from either signing or vetoing legislation. I'm the only one in the position to do that," she said, adding, "but I do need to let people know, 'Hey, this is who my husband is.'"

Hodges and Frey probably won't face a penalty for initially filing incomplete forms. The city's ethics officer, Susan Trammell, didn't comment directly on their situations. But she says the city's ethics board tends to favor education over punishment.

Tom Hoch announced he was running for mayor of Minneapolis
Tom Hoch announces he is running for Minneapolis mayor at a press conference in the lobby of the State Theater on Feb. 21, 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"The board historically uses coaching and remedial type of training as well as remedial actions," she said.

Trammell says Minneapolis has required city elected officials to disclose financial information on their spouses since 2003. However, the state does not require elected officials to submit that information and it's not required for candidates either.

Another mayoral candidate is Tom Hoch, former CEO of the Hennepin Theater Trust, whose husband is a former executive with General Mills.  Hoch's campaign manager says he will comply with all disclosure requirements.

Tom Hoch's campaign manager Kieran McCarney said Hoch is a "strong supporter of transparency."

The other announced candidates are State Rep. Ray Dehn, who isn't married, along with former NAACP chapter president Nekima Levy-Pounds and filmmaker Aswar Rahman, who didn't respond to requests for comment.

David Schultz, adjunct professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, says he thinks it would be helpful for voters if candidates were required disclose information about their spouses and partners.

"If candidate A is married to, I don't know, one of the largest developers of real estate or one of the largest commercial builders in the area, that might very well be a factor that's important for me to know for something like that."

Schultz said he would like to see the state include more transparency measures.

"We really don't have any statewide ethics laws that apply general to local government officials," said Schultz. "Yes, we have the gift ban and a couple things like that. But we have this, in my opinion, this enormous gap where we leave it up to local cities to have conflict of interest rules; questions regarding disclosures at the local level and so forth. And I think that's a major problem."

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.

Correction (Feb. 25, 2017): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the employment status of Tom Hoch and his spouse.

Editor's note: After this story ran, Jacob Frey called to clarify his comments: He said his wife does not exclusively lobby at the Capitol and has lobbied other metro area governments, including St. Paul. The story has been updated.