Several months ago, former Los Osos Community Services Director Lisa Schicker accused SLO County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren of having a conflict of interest with Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH). County Counsel Warren Jensen later shot down the claim, saying there was no evidence to support it. On December 16, Los Osos resident Al Barrow asked Johnathan Bishop, Coastal Planner of the California Coastal Commission about a possible conflict of interest involving SLO County Board of Supervisor Khatchik “Katcho” Achadjian serving as a representative. However, in that case, all voting representatives of the CCC represent a local government in their respective region. Section 30318 of the Coastal Act protects members and representatives’ vote and influence:
Nothing in this division shall preclude or prevent any member or employee of the commission who is also an employee of another public agency, a county supervisor or city councilperson, member of the Association of Bay Area Governments, member of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, delegate to the Southern California Association of Governments, or member of the San Diego Comprehensive Planning Organization, and who has in that designated capacity voted or acted upon a particular matter, from voting or otherwise acting upon that matter as a member or employee of the commission. Nothing in this section shall exempt any such member or employee of the commission from any other provision of this article.
It begs the question. What is conflict of interest?
Conflict of interest occurs when a public official’s decisions are influenced by that said official’s personal interests. In Los Osos, however, the definition of conflict of interest has been warped to include associations and six degrees of separation.
California’s Attorney General has a pamphlet prepared by former Attorney General Bill Lockyer on legally recognized conflict of interest, which carefully defines several kinds of conflict of interest including supported common law. It’s a good read. Check it out!
This year, Paavo Ogren was accused of having a conflict of interest with Montgomery Watson Harza. The accusation was founded on the fact that Ogren, former Interim General Manager to the LOCSD, asked yet-to-be-hired-GM Bruce Buel to pre-date a draft agreement with MWH to perform Wastewater Project Management Services. For the record, Ogren’s previous employers were Cannon & Associates and the Wallace Group. According to Ogren, it was the Board who directed MWH to perform the work, not him. Ogren also said that the board had authorized him to pre-date the agreement in order to accommodate the work that was actually done. However, former GM Dan Blesky (after Buel) claimed that the MWH agreement was executed before the board approved and that MWH filed claims before the contract was valid. According to the contract itself, the contract was signed by Buel on September 1, 1999, more than three months before Buel reported to work as GM. Ten years later, with Ogren as Public Works Director, his team places MWH as one of the top three contractors on the design-build RFQ shortlist.
Where was the conflict of interest? Not in this instance, apparently, but there are some raised eyebrows.
There is no separate effective date provision in the 11-page contract signed by Buel, nor clarification of the facts — that is, until the LOCSD approved a recommendation by the advisory committee to add a retroactive clause to the contract. Still, since there was no effective date provision, that opens the door for possible fraud because the dates are misleading. MWH billed the district 57 times for services rendered under their agreement. Though the board approved of the backdating, that does not realistically remedy California Government Code § 6200, which expressly prohibits public officers (especially Bruce Buel, who wasn’t legally classified as a public officer on the date of signature) from falsifying or altering any records in any public office. Jensen disagrees, writing on September 22, 2009 (Evaluation of Materials) that the “defect” in the contract was remedied by the ratification and board agreement was implied by subsequent invoices paid by the district. Jensen would be right if Buel was a salaried employee of the district prior to September 1, 1999, but Jensen is right that there is no conflict of interest at play since there was no proof of financial benefit for Ogren.
This month, Khatchik “Katcho” Achadjian was questioned by Al Barrow about any potential conflict of interest he might have sitting on the California Coastal Commission. Katcho is a representative of the SLO County Board of Supervisors. In other words, Katcho is holding one office, but he serves on a commission as someone who represents the interests, intentions and decisions made by the office he’s serving. The two offices that Katcho is serving complement each other. There is no division of his loyalty between the two offices because he is serving a representative of the board, not of those on the CCC. He is one of many representatives who are part of the California Coastal Commission and adhere to the same standards.
On November 2, 2008, CalCoastNews reported that Achadjian once occupied a salaried seat on the Santa Lucia National Bank’s board of directors along a developer who’s intimately involved with the proposed Santa Margarita Ranch project. Campaign contribution records uncovered in February 2007 show that Achadjian owns shares of SLNB, Mid-State Bank and Mission Community Bank that are worth between $200,000 and $2 million. The Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) approved of Achadjian’s ability to vote on the Santa Margarita Ranch project, but the FPPC reminded Achadjian that he must have no other economic interests that “may be materially affected by the decisions” he makes. Meanwhile, the Santa Margarita Area Residents Together (SMART) organization disagreed with the FPPC’s decision, saying that it was still a possibility that Achadjian has a conflict of interest since it’s unclear if the Santa Margarita Ranch LLC obtained loans from his banking interests.
While he was cleared of political conflict of interest by the FPPC, Achadjian — like Ogren — has maintained dangerously cozy relationships with those who could profit from his decisions.
As a talking point to discredit Sarah Christie’s contributions to the Los Osos wastewater project, several Taxpayers Watch members in Los Osos have continuously asserted that the former Planning Commission chair had several proven instances of conflict of interest. Around the time Christie was appointed chair, Santa Margarita resident Charlie Whitney said at a BOS meeting that Christie had a “real serious conflict of interest” in voting for the Santa Margarita Ranch proposal when she had worked against it as a private citizen before she joined the commission. Other accusations, which later evolved into a grand jury investigation, included the probability of bias accusation. Later, the grand jury cleared Christie of those charges of using her power in office to pursue her personal environmental — supposedly “anti-growth” — goals. Instead, the grand jury suggested the Planning Department should educate Christie and the rest of the commissioners on ex parte communications, due process and conflict of interest. County Counsel and the California Coastal Commission stood behind Christie as they denounced the accusations and supported the grand jury’s findings.
Some Taxpayers Watch members claim Sarah Christie had a conflict of interest when she questioned Dana Ripley, outside consultant of the WC Lyles group and head of Ripley Pacific, a prominent STEP/STEG designer during the Planning Commission meetings last May. TW also claimed that Sarah Christie did not give “equal time” to gravity collection engineers to explain why their system was better, but there are some clear problems with that argument. First, there is no proof that Sarah Christie was influenced by Ripley or had economic or personal interests. Second, Christie opened the floor for discussions with County Public Works, who publicly stated their unanimous support for gravity collection on April 7th. Public Works staff were — and continue to — represent their gravity solution. Discussions with Public Works lasted approximately three times longer than the Planning Commission’s discussion with Ripley. Therefore, conflict of interest does not apply here.
Los Osos residents need to rigorously educate themselves on the definitions of “conflict of interest” before throwing around the accusation. It’s apparent that the accusers have not thoroughly vetted the legal term before using it as a political weapon. Or maybe it’s just one giant misunderstanding. Maybe some of the accused have been involved in conflict of interest but it’s hard to prove. No photos. No wiretaps. Who knows? It’s become almost impossible to prove because the standard of evidence is, for practical purposes, too difficult to obtain — and the conflicted know this as well. We need to know that we don’t know what we don’t know and start from there, focus on what we do know, and take the conflict out of conflict of interest.
The people who have thrown around the claim of “conflict of interest” show they have no options left. This year, let’s focus exclusively on rebuilding solid foundations of information. By throwing around seemingly reckless accusations of conflict of interest, it only harms the credibility of potentially strong arguments. Even though it’s 2010 and the new year will allow us to entertain new perspectives and options, the costs of misinterpreting “conflict of interest” will stay with us for a long time.
– Aaron Ochs