In The News
Dining on Saltworks dime
Redwood City mayor attended ‘swank’ dinner; state documents reveal gifts to officials
BY BONNIE ESLINGER
Daily News, 4/7/11
Developers of the controversial Redwood City Saltworks project threw a posh dinner party at the Monterey Bay Aquarium last spring for Peninsula business and political leaders attending an annual weekend conference known as the “Progress Seminar.”
Among the guests who showed up for DMB Associates’ “complimentary strolling dinner and cocktails” event that featured freshly carved meats, mounds of seafood and an abundance of other culinary offerings was Jeff Ira, Redwood City’s current mayor and a council member at the time.
In an interview Wednesday, Ira said he and his fiancée had a great time, calling the April 16 evening a “swank occasion.”
Asked if he had second thoughts about accepting an invitation from a developer who wants Redwood City’s permission to build the most ambitious mixed-use project in the city’s history on salt flats owned by Cargill, Ira said not really.
Just because he enjoyed the party doesn’t mean Saltworks will get “whatever they want, carte blanche,” Ira said.
“Some (elected) people were afraid to go because they didn’t want to be associated with Cargill,” Ira said. “I’m not afraid. I really don’t care what people say.”
Other elected officials who apparently weren’t afraid to attend were former sheriff Don Horsley, now a San Mateo County supervisor, and his successor, Sheriff Greg Munks, according to documents recently filed with the county.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission requires government officials to disclose financial assets, general sources of income and gifts received during the previous year in documents known as Form 700s.
Although Ira said he believes going to the dinner was no big deal, the head of an environmental group spearheading an effort to stop the Saltworks project disagrees.
“Whether or not it’s a legal conflict of interest, it adds to the appearance that they’re (developers) buying access to the decision makers,” said David Lewis, executive director of Oaklandbased Save the Bay.
Lewis said government officials should not accept gifts from developers with projects before them.
Lewis said he has asked Ira several times for a sit-down meeting to explain the group’s position on Saltworks.
“We’ve been rebuffed,” he said, “But we haven’t offered to buy him dinner.”
Ira isn’t the first Redwood City council member whose association with Cargill and DMB Associates has been questioned.
Last July, the Fair Political Practices Commission found that Council Member Rosanne Foust had a conflict of interest when she voted to proceed with an environmental review of the project. Foust is president and CEO of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, which endorsed the Saltworks development.
In a July 28, 2010, letter, the state agency warned that if as a council member she takes any future actions on the development, she could face fines of up to $5,000 per violation.
The estimated cost of the Monterey Bay Aquarium dinner was $150.34 per person, a figure provided by DMB Associates to elected officials for declaration purposes.
Jay Reed, a spokesman for Redwood City Saltworks, said the goal of the event was to “gather business officials in a setting and educate them about the Saltworks proposal and the primary benefits of the Saltworks proposal.”
During the event, company officials and former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos gave a presentation on the proposed 1,436-acre waterfront development that would feature 12,000 homes, schools, offices, commercial/retail space, parks and 436 acres of restored wetlands.
Other gifts that Redwood City, Menlo Park and county officials disclosed in their Form 700 documents included Stanford football tickets; meals from organizations representing labor, real estate and trial lawyers; and free airport parking.
Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, who chairs the board’s criminal justice committee, took a free trip valued at $808.07 to Denver for a jail tour, courtesy of the National Institute of Corrections.
As a supervisor at the time, Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Mark Church accepted a $175 “polished black stone table ornament” from San Franciscobased Jewelry Importer and Manufacturers Association International.
Redwood City Council Member Ian Bain received a $45 dinner from Recology, the city’s new waste-removal company. Menlo Park Council Member Peter Ohtaki accepted an $80 wine gift basket from a Charles Schwab financial adviser.
Menlo Park Council Member Kelly Fergusson received two Stanford vs. Arizona football game tickets and several meals from the League of California Cities while serving on the organization’s policy board.
Tara Stock, a Fair Political Practices Commission spokeswoman, said while she couldn’t comment on specific cases, gifts in general wouldn’t constitute a conflict of interest unless accepted by an official who would decide an issue in which he or she has a financial interest.