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In The News

Conflict of interest charge filed against Redwood City councilwoman

By Bonnie Eslinger
Daily News, 6/26/10

Cargill's plan to build a massive project on Redwood City's salt flats just may have driven a bigger wedge between the city and Menlo Park.

First, Menlo Park ruffled some feathers in February when it voted to urge Redwood City to stop Cargill's so-called Saltworks project in its tracks. Redwood City ignored the request and allowed Cargill and developer DMB Associates to initiate an environmental review of the project.

Now, a Menlo Park council member has filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) charging that Redwood City Council Member Rosanne Foust has a conflict of interest whenever she discusses or votes on matters involving the mixed-use development.

That's because she is president and CEO of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, a business group that has endorsed the project, Menlo Park Council Member Andy Cohen said Friday.

In a letter to The Daily News (Page A9), Cohen said that even if there "were merely an appearance of impropriety, Councilmember Foust should be required to recuse herself from any vote or discussion of the Saltworks Project."

Cohen said in an interview that while he "respects" Foust, he felt he had no other choice but to go to the FPPC with his complaint a few days ago.

"She's going to do what she does," he said.

Cargill and DMB Associates propose to build as many as 12,000 homes, along with offices, retail space, schools, parks and other facilities, on 1,436 acres of salt evaporation ponds south of Redwood City's port.

Last month, the Redwood City City Council voted unanimously to launch an environmental study of the project, despite protests from those who object to the development's massive size and want the area restored to wetlands.

The SAMCEDA board endorsed the Saltworks plan in January. In a letter to DMB Vice President John Bruno, SAMCEDA board Chairwoman Elaine Breeze wrote that the organization is supporting the development "because of the vital importance of your project to Redwood City's and the county's future."

Foust, who joined SAMCEDA in 2008 and recently became its president and CEO, has come under fire from opponents of the development, who say she cannot make objective decisions due to her dual roles.

"It's Rosanne Foust's job to advance SAMCEDA's interests," said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, which has spearheaded opposition to the project. "It's not credible to Redwood City residents that she can be an impartial representative of their concerns while she's leading an organization forcefully promoting the project."

Foust said she is sensitive to citizen concerns that she might have a conflict of interest and was not involved in SAMCEDA's vote on Saltworks. Although she considered abstaining from making decisions on the project due to the appearance of a conflict, Foust said conversations with the city attorney confirmed that isn't necessary.

"The FPPC looks at financial conflict. I don't have a financial conflict," Foust said. "Plus, I didn't vote on it when SAMCEDA took a position."

Under the Political Reform Act, "a public official has a conflict of interest with regard to a particular governmental decision if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect on one or more of the official's economic interests," the Office of the Attorney General states on its website.

Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said it sounds like gray territory to him.

"If she had voted on it and she had a voting role on the council, it would be clear conflict," he said. "The real question is not the word of the law, but the spirit. Can a person wear two hats in that she is the president of the organization endorsing the development and at the same time be on the council voting on the development?

"Commonly, people who find themselves in situations where their credibility may be questioned recuse themselves so they don't have to be in that kind of position," Gerston added.

The state FPPC office was closed Friday due to budget-related furloughs, but the organization's executive director, Roman Porter, said if it receives a sworn complaint it has three days in which to notify the person or persons who allegedly violated the state's Political Reform Act. The office also would send a notice within 14 days informing all parties whether it intends to investigate the matter.

 

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