City Council talks about possible LAFCo conflict of interest issues
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula City Council
Published: January 02, 2013
Newly elected Councilman Martin Hernandez was involved in a brief discussion centered on whether or not he potentially could have a conflict of interest when it comes to an agency that oversees area land use.
Hernandez is chief of staff to Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, who serves as a commissioner for the Ventura Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo).
According to its website, an agency such as LAFCo was “formed and operates under the provisions of state law, specifically what is now known as the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000.” State law provides for LAFCos to be formed as independent agencies in each county in California to implement state law requirements and state and local policies relating to boundary changes for cities and most special districts.
LAFCo considers spheres of influence, incorporations, annexations, reorganizations and other changes of organization. “In this capacity,” notes its website, “the Ventura LAFCo is the boundary agency for cities and most special districts in Ventura County.”
At issue in Santa Paula is LAFCo’s recent study on the sphere-of-influence status for Adams and Fagan canyons. Kim Uhlich, LAFCo’s executive officer, told the council at the December 17 meeting the commission will consider three options at the agency’s January 16 hearing: keeping the city’s current sphere-of-influence boundaries untouched, removing Adams Canyon from those boundaries, or removing both Adams and Fagan canyons.
Adams and Fagan canyons comprise almost 6,000 acres, close to double the land now within Santa Paula’s approximately 3,000-acre city limits.
Uhlich told the council LAFCO could pull both canyons out of the city’s sphere of influence due to several factors, including having no formal applications to develop the properties. In addition, she said the city has no firm plans with dates on how to supply the areas with city services and infrastructure such as sewer, which would partially depend on an aging pipeline system within the city.
Uhlich’s presentation had already started when Mayor Ralph Fernandez noted he had not asked about conflicts of interest on the issue. City Attorney John Cotti said it would be up to individual council members to declare conflicts.
Councilman Bob Gonzales asked Uhlich about the LAFCo board, which she said includes several council members from other cities, representatives of special districts and the public, and County Supervisors Long and Steve Bennett. With some LAFCo terms expiring, Gonzales asked if there would be “any changes” in the supervisor representatives; Uhlich said such change was not likely.
Councilman Jim Tovias asked Cotti if “there are any consequences if the council or the city does not comply with the common law doctrine?” Cotti noted law and consequences of same, including the city could be sued if a decision is “tainted” by a council member’s interest in an issue.
Hernandez said he wanted it known that “I had this issue reviewed by three separate legal counsels and they all assured me” that LAFCo is a state organization governed by the state and not by the county, and “there is no conflict involved.”
“Welcome to the council,” said Gonzales wryly. “But my question, my concern is this council may be taking some action,” and although sure the counsel sought by Hernandez was “legitimate,” Gonzales said, “They are not our counsel.” Gonzales said he thinks a conflict might exist if the council takes action, “It might open us up to some issues... food for thought.”
“Well, I appreciate that,” said Hernandez, who noted all council members are entitled to “our opinions... and I have gotten three legal ones” that he is depending on. “Personally, I know I have enough ethics to recuse myself” on any issue that could be a conflict.
To “ensure the validity of council action and the legal status of the issue,” Fernandez asked, “Do we need to have some sort of an opinion” prepared “to protect us?”
Cotti said the council could direct him to review any potential conflicts of interest, although “Ultimately, it’s up to that individual council member to make that decision.”
Following the LAFCo presentation and council discussion of the potential loss of the canyons from the city’s sphere-of-influence, there was public comment. Marsha Rae complimented the council, noting she was “delighted with the depths of your questions related to the topic tonight.”
However, she objected to “what I consider to be politically motivated specious querying” of Hernandez’s ability to “act in the best interests” of the city, referring to the allegation he might have a conflict of interest. Rae said she found the comments directed to Hernandez to be “personal, inappropriate and beneath you.”