Full council review over potential conflicts of interest

January 23, 2013
Santa Paula City Council

A verbal tussle over a requested legal opinion on whether or not a single City Councilman has conflicts of interest ended with an order that potential decisions of all council members be vetted by the city attorney.

Councilman Martin Hernandez, chief of staff for Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, told the council at the January 7 meeting that if it approved examining potential conflicts of interest involving him, it should also direct City Attorney John Cotti to look at possible conflicts of other council members. The item was placed on the agenda by City Manager Jaime Fontes, who was unable to attend the meeting, under the Consent Calendar heading, those issues usually not requiring discussion.

Hernandez said he received numerous calls from citizens, angry that he was being targeted, and “I totally take offense to being” singled out.

The question of a possible conflict of interest involving Hernandez surfaced at a December 17 meeting when the executive director of the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) told the council the agency was weighing whether or not to pull back Santa Paula’s sphere of influence - Adams and Fagan canyons slated for future development - at an upcoming meeting. At the meeting, Councilman Bob Gonzales questioned whether Hernandez should participate in the talks with an official from the county because Hernandez - elected to the council November 6 - works for Long. 

Hernandez said at that meeting that he’d consulted with several attorneys about conflicts of interest and was told there would be none regarding Santa Paula’s sphere-of-influence boundaries and LAFCo, of which Long is a commissioner. Hernandez also stated he would recognize and recuse himself if a situation posed a possible conflict of interest.

At the January 7 meeting Hernandez repeated the statement, and Gonzales countered, “If we as a council person do not step down the consequences might not be immediate, but down the road,” and Gonzales requested that “potential outcomes” of any votes taken if there is a conflict also be reported, “so we would know what the ramifications” could be. 

“I researched that as well,” and Hernandez said the motion for a legal opinion should be applied to the full council and not him alone. 

Vice Mayor Rick Cook said perception must also be addressed, and noted several council members have faced conflict issues in the past, including one that turned into a legal case that centered on the “two masters rule” of potential decision-making. Hernandez’s integrity is not an issue, but “You do have two masters, your full-time job that’s your bread and butter,” and as an at-will employee Cook said Hernandez might be inadvertently influenced by his employer’s wishes. Cook noted, it “only takes one person to complain, then who knows - the district attorney might get involved.”

LAFCo, said Hernandez, is not an issue as it’s not a county board but rather a state agency. And, “On the council I have one master, the people that voted me into office... the campaign’s over, but I’m not going anywhere,” and Hernandez noted that over the years as Long’s representative, “I’ve been there when you needed me... now as a cohort” the city and its future remains a priority.

Councilman Jim Tovias said the council does not doubt Hernandez’s integrity, but rather if his votes on certain issues could be challenged in the future; and Cook noted the “perception” of a conflict can also be an issue. The full council agreed that Cotti offer an opinion on all the council’s potential conflicts of interest. 

Before being elected to the council Gonzales was an employee of Pinnacle Group of Arizona, which at one time owned and sought to develop Adams Canyon. Tovias was the campaign manager for the successful ballot issue - the third - that would allow development in the Adams Canyon. Fernandez - a leading opponent of a ballot measure to develop Fagan Canyon who ran for the council following the measure’s defeat - and Gonzales also live in close proximity to canyon boundaries.

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