Planning Commissioner Mark Bixby cast a vote Tuesday on the permit and environmental report for the Huntington Beach Senior Center, after learning through the city attorney that his vote might be challenged by some in the community.
Bixby was not advised by the attorney not to vote on the matter. He was only told that some in the community had concerns that he may be biased about the subject.
The commission voted 4-3 to approve an environmental impact report and a conditional-use permit for the center. Bixby, Blair Farley and Elizabeth Shier-Burnett dissented.
There's still a ways to go before a senior center is built. The City Council must approve it first, and funding is contingent on the completion of the Pacific City project, which is not close to being built yet, Bixby said.
Bixby got a call from City Attorney Jennifer McGrath warning him that some in the community were ready to accuse him of bias if he didn't recuse himself, because Bixby publicly voiced his opinion on the senior center as a private citizen.
"After careful consideration of this matter, I have decided that I will not recuse myself from the public hearing," Bixby wrote before the vote on HBTalk, an online discussion group.
Bixby noted that in July, in response to a court decision, the City Council voted to invalidate all prior proceedings on the senior center. The city then had to start over with a new permit process and environmental impact report.
The council's vote, Bixby said, rendered his prior participation moot.
But even with his vote, it's difficult to prove bias, according to McGrath.
"We come to every issue with our own way of thinking, and it's a very difficult thing to establish that someone is incapable of having an open mind," she said.
When asked to identify the individuals who might accuse Bixby of bias, McGrath said she had heard "rumbling" about it, but not from a specific person or group.
McGrath said she was doing her part by informing him in case accusations were made after the vote.
This wasn't the first time McGrath has warned council or commission members of possible bias concerns from members of the community.
She once issued a legal opinion warning candidates of possible bias accusations when a measure was going before voters in 2006 about the senior center. At that time, every candidate and council member had a position on the issue, she said.
"There's not a candidate that ran on council that didn't take a position," she said.
Still, McGrath said, personal views don't negate the ability to vote.
"Just because you have made an opinion, which you have to do in order to get people to vote for you, doesn't mean you're biased," she said. "You have to establish that there's no way that individual could have sat and did not listen with an open mind."
It's even more difficult to prove bias when the vote of that individual wasn't the deciding factor, as in Bixby's case, McGrath said.