Dozens of city officials throughout California have voted to appoint themselves to local boards that pay stipends of up to $5,000 annually, a practice state watchdogs say violates conflict-of-interest laws.
The mayors and council members involved argue that the amounts are so small, and the votes so routine, that they deserve an exemption from those laws. Most of the appointments are made to sanitation, fire and water boards by votes of city councils.
Fair Political Practices Commission staff member Gary S. Winuk, chief of enforcement, has concluded that the votes violate state political law. Rather than fine the council members, he issued letters to 40 of them in Orange County, telling them to stop. He agreed that the money at issue is not significant enough to warrant prosecution and penalties — at least not yet.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ethics board staffer: The headline on earlier version of this online article said an ethics panel member had sent letters to city council members who had voted themselves onto local boards. The person who sent the letter is not a member of the Fair Political Practices Commission; as chief of enforcement, he is a staff member.
Taxpayer advocate Lew Uhler called the warning letters a "slap on the wrist" and is urging that the officials be fined. They should know better, he said.
"That's a clear conflict of interest, where members are voting on something from which they will derive a personal benefit in compensation," said Uhler, president of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee.
The full Fair Political Practices Commission will take up the matter March 15. It was brought to the panel's attention in a number of sworn complaints filed by Matthew Delaney, a Tustin painting contractor who noticed that city council members throughout Orange County were regularly helping to vote themselves onto paid boards.
Delaney did not return calls for comment, but his written complaints named 69 council members in 22 Orange County cities including Buena Park, Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Tustin who allegedly participated in such votes.
Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante, Orange Mayor Carolyn Cavecche, Cypress Mayor Doug Bailey and Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Anthony Beall were among those who received Winuk's warning that they could be fined up to $5,000 per violation if they continue to vote on their own appointments.
"Your actions violated the … personal financial effects provision" of the 1974 Political Reform Act, Winuk wrote. "However, based on the fact that your decision did not affect your personal finances by a significant amount, and the fact that you do not have an enforcement history, we are closing this matter with a warning letter."
The state does not track how many California cities permit the council members' practice. A brief survey by The Times found that those in San Fernando, Gilroy and San Rafael vote on their own paid appointments.
The commission next month will consider a petition by 19 council members from cities including Anaheim, Irvine, Yorba Linda and Newport Beach to exempt them from the prohibition that Winuck cited in his letters.
The panel's staff is "just wrong about the law," said Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, who received one of the warning letters. "It is absolutely ludicrous to tell somebody he has a material conflict of interest in voting on these routine appointments."
Agran said he received $700 last year for serving long hours as his city's representative on the Orange County Fire Authority, an amount he said helps cover gas and expenses. The sum is in addition to his $10,560 pay for serving part time on the City Council.
Some boards pay much more. Several city officials serve on the board of the Orange County Sanitation District, which pays a $212.50 stipend for each meeting attended. Board members typically attend two meetings a month, so they could receive $5,100 per year.
In response to Winuk's letters, several Orange County cities have altered their practices, at least until there is an FPPC decision on whether to exempt such votes.
In Irvine, as of last month, a City Council member leaves the room when the group is voting on his or her appointment to a paid board, Agran said.