Arroyo Grande commissioner accused of conflict of interest
July 18, 2014
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
The lead architect of a proposed housing development in Arroyo Grande is a member of the city’s planning commission, a scenario, critics allege, that creates an ethical conflict of interest.
Randy Russom, an architect with RRM Design, pitched a 59-home development to the Arroyo Grande City Council on July 8 as part of a preliminary review of the project. Russom’s involvement in the project has prompted allegations of him using his standing with the city to further his work with RRM, as well as to further the political interests of his significant other.
State law prohibits government officials from using their positions for their own financial interests. Since Russom is pitching the project as a member of RRM, as opposed to a member of the planning commission, it is unclear whether he is actually using his seat on the advisory body for financial gain.
Nonetheless, critics, like Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page, say Russom has created the appearance of a conflict of interest. The Arroyo Grande ethics policy forbids city officials from using their positions in any manner that even creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“Officials and employees shall not use their official positions to influence government decisions in which they have a material financial interest or where they have an organizational responsibility or personal relationship that may give the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the policy states.
Page criticized Russom’s role in the project in a July 10 email to the city council.
“The fact a member of the planning commission presented the project and that he is employed by RRM design group raises the issue of impropriety and casts the unfortunate appearance of conflict,” Page wrote. Page then called for Russom to resign either from the planning commission or from his position with RRM.
In an email exchange with CalCoastNews, Russom would not address why RRM selected him, as opposed to another architect, to take the lead on the Mangano Homes development. Russom contended, though, that he has no conflict of interest in the matter.
“To bring forward a concept for discussion does not present a conflict of interest,” Russom wrote. “You should note that this project was not presented to the planning commission at any time.”
Arroyo Grande municipal code allows developers, upon the payment of a fee, to take their projects to the city council for a preliminary review before submitting a development application to city planning staff. Even though Mangano Homes opted for the preliminary council review, the project must still undergo planning commission review prior to the city council approving it.
Russom said he would recuse himself when the project reaches the planning commission.
Another potential conflict of interest exists in that Andy Mangano is a major donor to San Luis Obispo County Supervisor candidate Caren Ray, with whom Russom is in a relationship.
Last year, Mangano donated $10,000 to Ray’s supervisorial election campaign. From just the one donation, Mangano remains Ray’s second largest contributor.
Russom said the contribution has no relation to the project.
“As no project has been submitted for approval or vote, the suggestion that this has any relationship to Supervisor Ray’s election campaign would be a thinly veiled manipulation of circumstances at best,” Russom wrote.
Russom initially joined an Arroyo Grande advisory body by way of Ray appointing him. As a member of the Arroyo Grande City Council, Ray appointed Russom to the city’s architectural review committee in Jan. 2013, even though the two were already in a romantic relationship.
A few months later, RRM hired Russom as an architect. Several months after that, Arroyo Grande Councilman Joe Costello appointed him to the planning commission.
The proposed Mangano Homes development consists of 59 single-family homes on approximately 12 acres near Traffic Way and East Cherry Avenue. It has drawn criticism from residents for its density as well as its potential impact on a neighboring farm and proposed Japanese cultural center.
On July 8, Arroyo Grande Council members generally indicated support for the Mangano Homes project following Russom’s presentation.