Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grand jury: 'Ethics issues abound' on Santa Rosa planning commission

By Kevin McCallum

Published: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 6:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 8:47 p.m.

( page of 3 )

Santa Rosa's Planning Commission should overhaul its ethics policies in the wake of a decision last year rejecting a proposed Lowe's Home Improvement center, the Sonoma County grand jury has concluded.

The decision by two commissioners not to step aside from voting on the project despite their leadership roles in the Accountable Development Coalition, a group that lobbied against the big-box retailer, raises questions about the effectiveness of the city's ethics training, the grand jury found.

“What the Grand Jury does believe, and did find in this investigation, is that ethics issues abound which need to see the light of day,” the grand jury wrote in a report released Wednesday.

The report does not name the two commissioners, but it clearly refers to former commissioners Michael Allen and Nick Caston. Both were leaders of the Accountable Development Coalition, an alliance of environmental and labor groups.

Both men came under fire last year for opting not to recuse themselves from votes rejecting the project environmental impact report, and later, after the city council overturned that decision, rejecting the project itself.

Critics argued that their leadership roles in the Accountable Development Coalition, Allen as chairman and Caston as vice-chairman, should have required them not to participate in the commission process because the group actively lobbied against the project.

But Allen, who just won the Democratic primary for the state 7th Assembly District seat, said he disagreed with the grand jury's conclusions.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think they have some of their facts wrong,” Allen said. “I feel like Lowe's got a fair hearing.”

Allen said he received a legal opinion from the city attorney signing off on his decision to vote on the project. The decision was based on the fact he had no financial interest at stake in the decision and he felt he could be fair, he said.

He took issue with the grand jury's characterization of him as “predisposed” to vote against the project. He said that what he told the group when he was interviewed was that, as a planning commissioner, he was predisposed to vote against projects that require changing the General Plan.

The report is Allen's third brush with ethics issues in recent months. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating allegations that Allen acted in violation of conflict-of-interest laws when, as a planning commissioner, he voted to approve a general plan amendment that provides for rezoning of a seven-acre parcel in west Santa Rosa. Allen had been paid about $95,000 by the Sonoma County Water Agency to lobby for the redesignation of the property.

He later was the subject of a review by county officials into allegations about the professional quality of his lobbying work for the Water Agency. The report concluded his work met county standards.

Nick Caston, who resigned from the commission last month, said there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about how the Accountable Development Coalition operates.

“It's not an organization. It's a lot of different organizations,” Caston said.

Because it's a loosely knit alliance of various groups, Caston said it was possible for him to serve as its vice-chair without being directly involved in efforts opposing the Lowe's project, he said.

“Just knowing people doesn't make it a conflict, and working with them doesn't make it a conflict,” Caston said.

The grand jury also noted that a commissioner who owned between $10,000 and $100,000 of stock in The Home Depot, a direct competitor of Lowe's, didn't recuse him from voting.

Had that commissioner and Allen recused themselves, it could have changed the outcome of the vote, the grand jury found.

“The Grand Jury believes that both cases have the clear appearance of predetermined decision making that on ethical, if not legal, grounds should have led to recusals,” the group wrote.

Grand jury member Henry Alker said much of the distrust of government stems from concerns about whether such decisions are being made openly and in the public interest.

“The appearance of impropriety and being biased is something that should be avoided to give the public more confidence in these decisions,” Alker said.

The group recommends the planning commission adopt and publicize its own ethics code; strengthen its ethics training programs; consider advocating modernizing of the state open meetings law; and adopt a policy requiring commissioners step down before running for public office.

Santa Rosa City Attorney Caroline Fowler said the city had yet to review the report in detail, but will within 30 days.

The 19-member civil grand jury is a volunteer group overseen by the presiding judge of the Sonoma County Superior Court. It is charged with investigating complaints about local government agencies.

No comments: