Small, public entities such as the City of Hollister and San Benito County have special challenges when to comes to evaluating and controlling real, perceived or potential conflicts of interest. There are clear indications that they are not doing nearly enough in this area to ensure, first and foremost, that they are protecting the public’s interests.
All one has to do is look at the current presidential campaigns to understand how the specter of conflict of interest erodes public trust. In much smaller local public arenas with limited resource pools, like ours, the potential for conflicts are greater and certainly more personal and impactful. Our elected officials need to put extra effort into avoiding and controlling these conflicts.
During public comments relating to the proposed Medical Marijuana Ordinance at the Hollister City Council meeting, several speakers voiced concern that Hollister’s contracted City Attorney Brad Sullivan, a partner in L+G LLP, had a conflict of interest because the firm also claims expertise and offers legal services in the “Cannabis Business.”
What surprised me most was that the city did not seem prepared to address that issue head on. They had been cautioned several times that using L+G LLP might present a potential conflict of interest in several areas, especially development, and that they needed to implement procedures to address those protection issues with the public.
I assume that they are not incompetent and have addressed and documented the issue with both Mr. Sullivan and L+G; if so, why were they not prepared with a short summary outlining the steps they have taken to implement the separation of interests especially on the marijuana issue? It is imperative that they supply the public with that information immediately to shore up public trust.
Over at San Benito County, the good news is that they appear to be taking the concept of board member recusals very seriously since losing a lawsuit and a boatload of taxpayer bucks tying to defend the indefensible. However, their propensity for ill-advised, and perhaps illegal, comments remains.
During a discussion of the advisability of San Benito County deferring permit and impact fees for businesses, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz mentioned that the company he works for was considering offers to relocate from San Benito County because they could get deferred or waived fees from other counties (hint, hint). This is not the first time he has inappropriately talked about the company that employs him and the products it can supply to the county and/or city; it is overdue for it to be last time (and that’s a hint, hint, from me.)
The other issue is what I see as the drift toward accepting waivers of conflicts of interest on a routine basis with little or no discussion. Waivers of conflicts of interests are complex legal matters; they basically come up when attorneys represent or have represented two or more parties with competing interests on the same or related matters. The complexity comes from the issues of confidentiality, alternatives and the risks of the conflict. As one article put it, “Is there some reason that you [the attorney] may not make the same arguments, pursue the claims as vigorously, make decisions because of the relationship you have with the other party or with the source of the conflict?”
Obviously, those change on a case by case basis; therefore, it is imperative that board, through the staff, actually review and consider each case in detail and not settle for cookie cutter waiver documentation. The issues of inappropriate or inadequate waivers could come back to be an expensive proposition if the other party or the taxpayers believe they got the short end of the stick because of a conflict.
It’s amazing how many times government poo-poos all concerns and criticism only to come back later and to talk about the hundreds of thousands they lost and the bad decisions they made on the same issues, but then again, it’s all OPM (Other People’s Money).