In The News
Complaint against Foust upheld
Commission warns council member to not cast any future votes on the development
BY BONNIE ESLINGER
Daily News, 7/30/10
Redwood City Council Member Rosanne Foust had a conflict of interest when she voted to push along Cargill’s controversial Saltworks development, a state political watchdog agency has concluded following a Menlo Park council member’s complaint.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission chose not to fine Foust because she acted on the advice of an attorney but warned her not to cast any future votes affecting the development.
Foust’s conflict stems from her role as member of a city council that can approve or reject a project strongly endorsed by the influential San Mateo County Economic Development Association, or SAMCEDA, that she heads as CEO.
Critics of the Saltworks project have contended Foust cannot make objective decisions about it as a council member since her day job is to advance the development association’s interests.
Foust did not respond Thursday to questions from The Daily News about the state commission’s findings, saying she had not yet received its letter.
Menlo Park Council MemberAndy Cohen, who filed a complaint with the state agency in June alleging Foust has a conflict, said he views the findings as “vindication” and added that he was “just trying to do what’s right for residents.”
In May, the Redwood City City Council voted unanimously to initiate an environmental study of the Saltworks proposal, which calls for constructing up to 12,000 homes as well as office and retail buildings, schools and parks on 1,436 acres of salt evaporation ponds south of the Port of Redwood City. Though Cargill and developer DMB Associates say they also plan to restore some of the property to wetlands, critics say the project is so massive it constitutes a mini-city and instead want to see the whole area restored to wetlands. In a letter dated July 28, the Fair Political Practices Commission informed Foust that her May vote violated provisions of the state’s Political Reform Act “because it was reasonably foreseeable that your vote to hire an environmental firm to review the Saltworks project, a vote that moved the project along its path to potential approval, could affect SAMCEDA, an organization so interested in the Saltworks project it held a vote to endorse the project and sent its employees as advocates on the Saltworks project to the Redwood City council’s meetings.”
The commission also suggested that because developers involved with the Saltworks project are dues-paying members of SAMCEDA, other developers might join the business organization in hopes of seeing their projects advance due to Foust’s influence. That in turn would bring additional revenue to the business group in the form of membership dues.
But the commission decided not to fine Foust because she was acting on the advice of interim city attorney Roy Abrams. Still, it warned Foust that any future actions she takes on Saltworks “will result in monetary penalties of up to $5,000 for each violation.”
Abrams criticized the commission’s conflict-of-interest finding and stood by his advice.
“We concluded it would have no financial effect on her employer,” Abrams said. “(DMB) is a developer independent from her employer.” He also challenged the commission’s assertion that Foust’s dual roles as council member and SAMCEDA’s chief executive officer could encourage other developers to join the association.
“That’s quite a legal assertion, there’s no evidence to suggest that’s true or false. ... it doesn’t meet any test of reasonable likelihood,” Abrams said.
Former Santa Clara mayor Judy Nadler, now a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said she was surprised Foust was not told to recuse herself from voting on the Saltworks project.
“It’s been my experience that on something like this, that’s extremely controversial and there are big stakes, city attorneys tend to advise their clients with an abundance of caution,” Nadler said. “That it’s best to recuse yourself from a vote, to avoid any appearance of impropriety. That’s prudent advice that takes into account not just the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law.”
David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, which opposes the Saltworks project, said Foust’s past insistence that she can wear both hats didn’t “pass the sniff test.”