Linn’s conflict of interest goes unquestioned

Something happened in City Council chambers Tuesday evening, May 15, that many, if not most, people failed to comprehend fully.

As Mayor John Linn introduced item #9, the first meaty item on the night’s agenda, he let it be known that he would need to recuse himself during discussions regarding proposed changes to the city’s industrial zoning. Linn said two of the changes to the proposed industrial zone he authored would affect his own property. Thus, without actually saying the words aloud, Linn announced he had a conflict of interest and, by law, could not participate in the council discussion.

I need to talk about one thing before we start on that. Because this involves two zones, it involves the business park zone and the industrial zone, I’m going to take the discussion of the business park zone first and talk about those things to do with it and then when we get to the industrial zone I’ll need to recuse myself and Mayor pro tempore will take over because I own a piece of property in the industrial zone and there are two changes on here that would affect me.

Only Council member Cecilia Martner grasped the full significance of his disclosure. It meant that Linn’s conflict of interest precluded him from submitting the proposed changes as Mayor in the first place. Legally, he could only submit his rewrite of the industrial zone as a private citizen, thus the entire process of introducing the zoning changes as Mayor had skirted the law. Martner wanted to redo the process to correct the flaw, but her motion had no supporters. Martner was harshly criticized by two members of the public who accused her of “attacking” Linn. But Martner didn’t accuse Linn of a conflict of interest; he announced his own conflict of interest — though very late in the process — and the city attorney confirmed it.

State law, as implemented in the City Council Handbook, prevents any council member from participating in an issue where he or she has a conflict of interest:

“A Councilmember who is disqualified by a conflict of interest should step down by briefly announcing the conflict and the reason for it. After that announcement, the member should leave the Chamber or at least leave the dais during consideration of the item of business. A disqualified member must refrain from any participation in the matter at issue, including attempting to influence the decision by informal conversations or contributing advice or research.  A disqualified member who owns a property interest affected by the pending decision may address the Council solely as a private citizen during the public participation portion of the meeting.”

To put it bluntly, then, if an elected official isn’t allowed to influence decisions by informal conversations, or to contribute advice or research, he’s sure not allowed to write the whole darn thing and put it on the agenda as Mayor.

But the evening had even more surprises. After the city attorney explained the situation with carefully chosen words, Council member Ashley Costa asked if the same flaw existed in the rewrite of the commercial zoning. After a long pause, the city attorney tersely offered that “it would have been better” if the Mayor had introduced those changes as a private citizen.

What went unsaid, by Costa and the city attorney, is that Linn failed to disclose his conflict of interest for the commercial zone rewrite. Not only was he not allowed to introduce the rewrite as Mayor, he should have recused himself during all council discussions of the commercial zone changes. In other words, Linn and the Council violated state law for months, in successive discussions about commercial zoning. No disclosure, no recusal.

Interestingly, no one asked Linn why he failed to disclose his conflict of interest, or why he failed to recuse himself during discussions on commercial zoning. When Martner pointed out it was his responsibility to do so, Linn remained silent, offering no explanation. Martner again displayed her knowledge of the law when she pointed out Linn’s obligation to disclose his conflict of interest, without waiting for the city attorney to do so.

The Council Handbook contains this warning:  “The California courts have held reliance solely upon the City Attorney’s opinion does not confer immunity on the Councilmember.”

In the end, it was Martner, in her attempt to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law, who was excoriated. Linn, who failed to follow either the spirit or the letter of the law, got a pass from the remainder of the Council and silence from the city attorney. (The city attorney explained that it would not be wise for him to acknowledge a violation of law or process from the dais in a public meeting, as his job is to protect his client, the city. Ponder that for a minute and you’ll get what he didn’t say.)

Does it really matter much? Yes, because the legal process wasn’t followed. But would it have changed the outcome even if Linn had followed the correct legal process? No. This Council has shown a remarkable tendency to allow Linn to set the rules, control the dialogue, alter the agenda, and do just about anything else the Mayor wants.

But wouldn’t it be nice if the Mayor followed both the spirit and the letter of the law? And wouldn’t it be great if the remainder of the Council insisted that laws and rules apply to everyone equally, including the Mayor?

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