FPPC warns but doesn't fine mayor

California's political ethics watchdog warned Newport Beach Mayor Rush Hill on Thursday that he should have recused himself from a handful of decisions that could have raised the value of property he owns, but declined to fine or formally admonish him.

"It's true vindication," Hill said.

The state's Fair Political Practices Commission said in a letter that the mixed-use building Hill owns on West Balboa Boulevard created a conflict of interest when he voted on preliminary stages of a project to build $2 million worth of improvements to the street's sidewalks and medians.

The mayor said the letter shows the FPPC couldn't find anything serious enough to levy a fine after a two-year investigation.

Hill was part of a committee in 2011 that recommended the city prioritize revitalizing areas of West Newport, and in June of that year, he joined other City Council members to approve that recommendation.

According to FPPC's letter, Hill was at least somewhat aware that the building he owns at 22nd Street and West Balboa Boulevard could potentially cause a conflict.

In a May 2011 committee meeting, Hill mentioned his property and said he'd ask for advice from the FPPC, according to the letter.

"However, it does not appear you requested advice until August," the FPPC wrote.

In the meantime, the committee and council moved forward with the project that eventually included landscaping, expanding medians and other projects to improve the boulevard.

Throughout the early process, the boundaries of the project were undefined, Hill said, making it difficult to determine whether it was close enough to his real estate to cause a potential conflict.

When he realized the borders were creeping near his building, he began recusing himself from votes, he explained.

Nevertheless, at the time of the first council vote in June, "The exact parameters of the road beautification were not a certainty, but they were reasonably foreseeable to you at the time," the FPPC said.

Hill inappropriately participated in one more vote after he began recusing himself, according to the FPPC.

In November 2011, he joined the council in passing a bundle of miscellaneous services related to various revitalization projects, including the one on Balboa Boulevard.

Hill said he didn't recall the specifics of that vote.

Public officials are required by law to abstain from discussing or voting on decisions in which they could have a financial interest.

When it comes to real estate, officials are generally required to recuse themselves when their property is within 500 feet of an area affected by a governmental decision, unless they can prove the property would be unaffected, according to the FPPC.

The FPPC decided to only issue Hill a warning in this case but told him that future violations could levy a $5,000 fine per infraction.

Hill called the original complaint to the FPPC in 2012 politically motivated harassment.

"It was just an absolute waste of everybody's time," he said.

Robert Hawkins, a frequent critic of Newport's council, filed the objection. Hawkins highlighted his complaint when he resigned from the Planning Commission in 2012.

Hawkins could not be reached by phone Thursday afternoon.

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FPPC clears Henn

Hawkins also filed an FPPC complaint against then-Mayor Mike Henn after the Daily Pilot reported that Henn had financial ties to Lido Village where he'd championed revitalization.

In a second letter sent Thursday, the FPPC said they found no wrongdoing on Henn's part.

"After completing our investigation, we found insufficient evidence of a violation ... and we are closing our file on this matter as to you," a letter to Henn said.

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