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As a West Jordan city councilman, Justin Stoker voted in December to create a new deputy director position for the city's public works department, then three months later stepped down from his part-time elected office to take the job, which has a salary of $80,000 and benefits worth $34,000.
Stoker, who worked the previous seven years as a civil engineer for Salt Lake City, insists that when he joined in the unanimous vote to create the new West Jordan job, he had no intention of applying for it. He said everything about the hiring was aboveboard and done without any undue influence. The department director who ultimately hired him and other council members agree the process was clean, and Stoker did nothing wrong.
But he is still under investigation. Mayor Kim Rolfe has referred the issue to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
Rolfe's attorney recommended the referral, citing provisions of Utah ethics laws that make it a crime for public officials to use their office for personal economic benefit or to secure special privileges.
"I'm not making an allegation. I just have concerns with the information that I've seen," Rolfe said, pointing to city documents that he said first came to light through a resident's open-records request. "I read some of the documents turned over to the district attorney's office, and I don't have anything further [to say]."
Gill confirmed the request for an investigation, saying it's in the early stages of fact gathering.
"I wouldn't want to say anything about any particular allegation or any section of the criminal code," he said. "We are taking the matter very seriously and reviewing it."
It doesn't appear that Stoker is seeing a big financial gain from the new job. Total compensation for his Salt Lake City post was $103,390 in 2013, compared to the $114,000 for the West Jordan one. That difference would be more than made up with the loss of the roughly $12,000 council salary.
Councilman Ben Southworth sees the mayor's push for a probe as personal and meritless.
"Mayor Rolfe has never been a friend of Justin, never liked him," Southworth said. "It makes you question the motive."
The mayor first raised a question publicly about Stoker's job switch in a Feb. 25 council meeting, during which Stoker announced he was stepping down to take a full-time job with West Jordan. Colleagues lined up to praise his service and say they were looking forward to working with him in his new capacity.
Rolfe took a different tone.
"I have been advised that Justin Stoker participating in this meeting is a conflict of interest," the mayor said, "and I want my statement to go on the record that I believe that further participation is unethical."
Stoker ignored the advice, waiting to resign until March 8, the day before starting his new job.
That meeting was the only one he participated in after being notified he got the position, though, and he took care to abstain from any vote connected to the department he would oversee as the No. 2 manager.
"There were just a lot of loose ends that I wanted to tie up before resigning that I didn't think had anything to do with the job offer itself," Stoker said. He mentioned working with some Boy Scouts on their citizenship in the community merit badges, some arts council matters and other unfinished business on the Community Development Block Grant committee.
Stoker acknowledges there might be some perception problems about taking a job he voted to create and fund.
"If I knew two months later that I was going to be applying for it, then, yeah, I would have abstained from [voting on] the creation of the position. But back when it was created, I just didn't that wasn't in my mind. It wasn't something I was looking for so I didn't see a conflict of interest because there was no interest at that time."
Stoker said he had no knowledge of another issue raised in documents turned over to the district attorney: Changes in the ranking of applicants that flipped Stoker from No. 3 during a first round of interviews to No. 1 in the second and final one.
Public Works Director Wendell Rigby, who conducted the second interview and made the final selection, said Stoker stood out from the other two finalists.
"Justin had the experience I was looking for," Rigby said. "He had a lot of operations and maintenance experience that the other ones didn't have streetlights; a lot of utilities; he had emergency-preparedness training; he had a lot of good leadership training through the ROTC those are the reasons I picked Justin."
There was another factor, outlined in a memo that Rigby put in the file a week after his scoring elevated Stoker to the top of the list and sent the first-round top applicant plummeting to the bottom.
The memo says Rigby called an acquaintance who had previously worked with the applicant who lost the top spot the city engineer for another Utah municipality.
"My acquaintance went on to describe a number of concerns," Rigby wrote, "and it was evident by the end of the conversation that hiring [the applicant] for this particular position would not be a good idea."
Rigby would not elaborate about those concerns nor name his acquaintance.
He said he had no personal relationship with Stoker beyond that which he has with other council members, adding that he gave him no special treatment or consideration.
Stoker said he knew nothing about the scores of various applicants and that the process seemed objective, thorough and fair from beginning to end.
He expressed optimism that a review by the district attorney will clear him of any allegations, which he suspects stem from political rivalries and infighting.
"I don't think it is any surprise that there is a great deal of conflict on the City Council right now," Stoker said. "I would hope that recent events aren't related to a political battlefield somewhere and that any conflict on the council can stay within, and be resolved by, the City Council."