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D.A.'s office can try to oust Carson mayor from water board, attorney general says

The California attorney general has given Los Angeles County's top prosecutor the green light to sue the mayor of Carson, Albert Robles, and oust him from his seat on a regional water board.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris found there are  “substantial questions” as to whether the two public offices held by Robles -- mayor and board member of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California -- are incompatible. 

A judge should decide if any potential conflicts of interest could exclude Robles from holding the water board post, the opinion stated.

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Prosecutors sought permission to sue Robles in a process known as a quo warranto. After the attorney general grants approval, quo warranto actions allow individuals and public agencies to challenge a person's right to hold office. 

The L.A. County district attorney's office alleged that Robles has a conflict of interest because his elected posts have overlapping loyalties. 

Robles, prosecutors argued, should not have sought election to the Carson City Council in 2013 while still retaining his seat on the water board, a position he has held since 1992. Prosecutors want Robles to forfeit his seat on the water board.

In an interview with The Times earlier this year, Robles disputed that the offices were incompatible. Carson has no water rights or municipal water operations, like many other cities, he said, so the position poses no conflicts of interest for him.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the L.A. district attorney's office, said the office is reviewing the decision to determine a next step.

The opinion by the state's top law enforcement officer marks the latest political setback for Robles, now at the center of the city's bid to land an NFL stadium for the Chargers and Raiders.

In September, a Times investigation raised questions of whether Robles resides in Carson rather than in the Adams-Normandie neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Robles insisted that he lives in his parents’ home in Carson but spends most of his free waking hours with his wife and two children at an Adams-Normandie apartment. If Robles lives in L.A. city boundaries, he would be ineligible to be Carson's mayor or sit on the water board.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

The water replenishment district governs groundwater quality for 4 million people in two basins across L.A. County. Five elected board members, including Robles, oversee it. Robles was reelected to the board in 2012.

Robles won a seat on the Carson City Council in 2013. He became mayor this year when his predecessor stepped down to become the city clerk.

The attorney general's position noted that state law prohibits an elected official from holding two public offices that are incompatible. Those offices cannot have a significant clash of duties or loyalties, according to the law.

The water district does not sell water directly to Carson or its residents, nor does it set the city's water rates.

But the opinion highlighted that the water replenishment district purchases water from other sources and injects it into the basins. Carson's water companies extract water from those basins and sell it to the city and its residents, passing on the replenishment district's taxes, according to the opinion.

Thus, City Council members would have an interest in keeping taxes -- and residents' water bills -- down, according to the opinion.

Conversely, decisions by Carson lawmakers over land use and environmental regulation could run up against interests of the water replenishment district board, the opinion said.

Jessica Levinson, a clinical law professor at Loyola Law School who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said the attorney general's office typically grants permission to allow such suits to proceed. The office "clearly found Robles' arguments to be less than compelling," Levinson said.

The issue of incompatible offices has arisen before, and the opinion noted similarities in a 2008 opinion involving Sergio Calderon. Then a Maywood City Council member, Calderon also sat on the same water replenishment district board. In that case, Robles served as Calderon's lawyer.

Robles' term on the water replenishment board ends next year.

 

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