Sunday, October 20, 2019

At what point does local government cross ethical lines?

Is it when a council member votes on an item in which he or she clearly has a vested interest? Or when a council member votes for a budget package that has, buried deep inside it, funding for projects or non-profits in which they have material involvement? Or perhaps, when a council member votes on items that directly affect family members or relatives? Or when they influence decisions that could financially benefit their employer?

 

For the Pittsburg City Council, it seems there are few ethical lines that will not be crossed.

 

As outsiders, the citizens of Pittsburg are mostly unaware of the many connections – questionable and otherwise – that exist between our City Council and Mayor and outside organizations or politicians. This is, in part, because these representatives choose to not publicly disclose the extent of their connections. But Pittsburg Voice has been doing some research and has concerns regarding their appropriateness as primary decision makers, particularly with regard to some large projects.

 

Consider the example of a hypothetical, self-righteous, pontificating council member with a tendency to criticize all who question him. Let’s just call him SE. So SE is currently employed by a major corporation that happens to be the owner of Pittsburg Disposal – Garaventa Enterprises. Granted, SE does make some attempt to recuse himself from voting on items that might obviously benefit his employer, but it’s the inherent influence that comes with having an employee on a city council that has us raising our eyebrows.

 

One such concern is SE’s intimate connection with his former employer, Seeno Construction. You see, the SE in our example is actually a first cousin to key Seeno family members and company executives. So, regardless of his employment status, SE has a blood-bond with all the Seeno companies, and that makes him unfit to vote on matters that will directly benefit them. Take a look – seriously, just take a look! – at the number of votes over the last few years on matters that financially benefit Seeno companies.

 

You see, recently the Pittsburg City Council has been making huge decisions that affect the developers in this town. Even decisions such as eBART, road repairs, property tax changes, boundary lines, and annexation for new housing developments all ultimately enrich the developers who build here. Making smart decisions that might one day improve our city is a good thing. However, every time SE votes to approve even a superficially innocuous agenda item he is really voting for the future of his family’s business.

 

Here are a few examples:

 

  • In September of 2013, SE voted to support the rezoning of a parcel of land to support residential development by a Seeno company (Sunnyside Estates), that would be serviced by Pittsburg Disposal. This rezoning would financially benefit both companies (companies to which SE is tied) for the foreseeable future.
  • In July of 2016, SE voted to support the rezoning of another parcel of land for residential development by a Seeno company (The Reserve at Woodland Hills), that would be serviced by Pittsburg Disposal. The financial effects are the same here as for Sunnyside Estates – both companies to which SE is linked with benefit directly.
  • All residential and commercial development projects within Pittsburg’s city limits would ultimately be serviced by Pittsburg Disposal, thereby making SE’s vote on any of these items a conflict of interest. Many of these developments are under contract between the City and a Seeno entity.

 

Directly unethical? Arguable.

Inappropriate? Absolutely.

 

Moving on. In addition to SE there’s also the hypothetical council member whose connections with local business, city employees, and county politicians are downright scandalous: Pittsburg’s current Mayor. For the sake of argument, we’ll just call her MC.

 

MC has fingers and toes in several local organizations that regularly benefit from the generosity of Pittsburg’s City Council and the pocketbooks of its citizens. To be clear, we at Pittsburg Voice are not critical of the organizations themselves but the frequency and predictability with which MC votes on items that could directly benefit these organizations (thereby indirectly benefiting herself) trouble us.

 

Many of MC’s organizations have deep roots in the city finances – so much so that her casting some votes on the city budget should even be considered a conflict of interest.

 

Let us take a moment to explain. Based on our research, MC’s involvement in three organizations would raise specific concern:

 

  • STS Academy – MC is a former board member and spouse to the Principal Officer of the company
  • Open Opportunities – MC is Executive Director and Principal Officer of this organization
  • Future Build – MC is Program Manager and Principal Officer of this organization

 

Without diving too deep, we found that between these three organizations MC, in her capacity as a City Council member and Mayor, helped funnel tens of thousands of dollars into the coffers of businesses for which she or her immediate family member is either a Principal Officer, Executive Director, or on the Board of Directors.

 

Even as recently as  June 2017, MC voted on agenda items that will benefit her personal organizations. By voting to approve the current city budget, MC directs money into her organizations without the appearance of directly doing so. The City of Pittsburg and its subsidiaries (Pittsburg Power Company and Pittsburg Arts and Community Foundation) spend a lot of money to support all three of MC’s organizations.

 

And MC just voted to approve another year’s worth of funding without blinking an eye or “recusing” herself.

 

The problem lies not just with items that are the subjects of individual votes. Our City Manager consistently buries items within a council meeting agenda’s Consent Calendar, where non-controversial and trivial items are normally located. All Consent Calendar items receive a single vote as it is assumed that there are no conflicts of interest nor concerns about the items. A Consent Calendar is a tool to speed up a meeting when several items can be quickly approved, such as the minutes from a previous meeting.

 

However, in Pittsburg, that’s not how it works.

 

While feigning appropriate behavior by recusing themselves from voting on a single “conflict of interest” item embedded deep within the Consent Calendar, SE and MC will then vote YES on the entire calendar. Their vote is ultimately counted toward approving the item, regardless of what was initially claimed. For some reason, (perhaps for the benefit of their related organizations?) the City of Pittsburg does not follow the accepted procedures for recusing oneself from Consent Calendar items. Even the Fair Political Practices Commission – the body tasked with establishing protocols in our state – removes conflicted items from the Consent Calendar so that they may be voted upon separately, ensuring a clear and ethical recusal from the vote without affecting other Consent Calendar items.

 

In Pittsburg… not so much. And we are not the first to raise these concerns.

 

The truth is that citizens have been standing up and complaining about the city council members voting on matters that present clear conflicts of interest for years. The City Attorney generally responds tersely that no one is breaking the law and then everyone does what they wanted to do in the first place. Which is to act in a way that benefits their organization or family. So, let us head that off right now. We are not talking about the law. We are talking about ethics. Many things may follow the letter of the law and still be unethical. We are talking about the appearance of impropriety, which is something that comes up every time any council member’s vote benefits an entity to which they have close ties. And, let us be clear about this: their votes are consistent and almost always benefit the entity or family member. And such conflicts are so easy to avoid. It is just a matter of disclosure and recusal. That is all that is required.

 

And with so little required to maintain ethical integrity, the question remains: why do city council members choose again and again to look at those lines and then to cross them?

 

If council members are not able to remain on the proper side of the ethical line, perhaps the solution is for them to resign and so allow someone independent to take their place.

~ G.F.