Arroyo Grande commissioner accused of conflict of interest

July 18, 2014
Randy Russom appearing before the Arroyo Grande City Council on July 8

Randy Russom appearing before the Arroyo Grande City Council on July 8

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.


29 Comments

  1. racket says:

    This appearance of a conflict bothers me less than the alternative. The alternative is stocking all boards, committees and councils with do-nothings who likely don’t know jack about their purview.

    He said he’ll stand down from the issue when it comes before the Planning Commish. That is enough.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 25

  2. OnTheOtherHand says:

    I have to say that, from the point of view of my ethical standards, Mr. Russom’s willingness to present one side in this case is a FAIL given his position on the City Planning Commission.

    I think that what is happening here is that politicians have figured out that most voters don’t even educate themselves on what actually happens in government unless it affects them directly (or unless someone they trust pushes them on the subject.) Therefore, the trend has been for those in the political process to ignore ethical standards — or at least push the limits of them — knowing that it is unlikely to make a significant difference at the ballot box. The “good ol’ boys” network will stay in place until that changes. The only difference will be the inclusion of more “gals” in the network.

    While I am somewhat leery of CCN’s objectivity and competence in reporting, only New Times comes close in terms of coverage of controversial issues. Neither media outlet has enough public exposure to sway an election under normal circumstances.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 6

    • hijinks says:

      “only New Times comes close in terms of coverage of controversial issues.” Give me a break. New Times has become totally irrelevant. They don’t know what news is under their current editor, who got there from the entertainment pages. There’s not a decent reporter in their stable, the editor’s an idiot. They “report” one irrelevant issue after another, totally ignore anything that might help straighten out public corruption. For example, their recent “expose” on the supposedly rotten event rules that resulted in the county’s wisely rejecting a permit for a 10,000 person rock concert in Avila, pled to New Times by the greedy out-of-town promoters of that concert! Now that’s news! — a public agency actually protecting the public from greedy concert promoters. New Times twisted the story into nasty public officials standing in the way of progress. Now that’s really insightful reporting. Typical of the trash they print. Too bad their ink is toxic, or NY might make good fishwrap.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 8

      • OnTheOtherHand says:

        Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “close” but New Times still does occasionally do in depth reporting on controversial issues even if it isn’t as often or as well as was done 10+ years ago. As for quality of reporting, I don’t think that their reporters are any worse or less biased than Josh Friedman. I have seen more than one of his articles that were neither accurate nor objective in their presentation based upon my personal knowledge of the subject being covered.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  3. pasoparent5 says:

    Reminds me of two Paso Robles city councilmen who just love to approve new housing developments: John Hamon (Hamon Garage Door Co) and Ed Steinbeck (ReMax realtor). Conflicts of interest? Yep. I’d say so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 5

    • OnTheOtherHand says:

      I can understand your dislike for the two PR councilmen above and your disagreement on their policies. However, your standards for who should be able to serve as a public official are unreasonable.

      Almost all people will come into political office with background and biases on at least a couple of issues. As long as they are open about these during the campaign and they abstain from voting on issues where they have a personal financial stake, there is no reason they should not be able to serve. To do so would make it almost impossible to find competent people able to run for office. Such competence does not just spring from within but is forged with life experiences. It is finding competent people who are also honest and ethical that should be of concern to us.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 5

      • hijinks says:

        You miss the fact there’s considerable difference between people having biases, and people having economic interests they seek to advance by holding public office. The latter aren’t biases, they are greed put into the wrong place. Too bad you don’t get it. Pasoparent nails it squarely.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

        • OnTheOtherHand says:

          I do get it but how do you tell who the greedy ones are before electing them. Are you going to ban everyone who COULD have an economic conflict of interest from running for office. That would still preclude most of the competent people who could serve from doing so — just on the possibility that they might be greedy and dishonest. There will always be a potential for corruption and no system is perfect but I would rather allow anyone to run for office and try to figure out whether they are honest during the campaign.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

      • MaryMalone says:

        Here is definition from dictionary.com for “conflict of interest”:

        The circumstance of a public officeholder, business executive, or the like, whose personal interests might benefit from his or her official actions or influence.

        That seems pretty straight forward.

        Clearly Randy Russom, as a member of the Planning Commission AND Caren Ray’s consort, is in a position to exert influence on outcomes related to the real estate project which he represents and architecture group to which he belongs.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  4. obispan says:

    “drawn criticism for its density”? Divide 12 by 59 and multiple by 42,560sf/acre. Bueller? Bueller?….about 8,500sf/house minus areas of public on-site improvements. Still a pretty good lot size for AG, a city of 5.4 square miles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 6

    • hijinks says:

      I guess everybody has a helicopter in your subdivision. Your math totally forgot about streets, which will consume about 20% of the land area. Subtract that out, and the math changes considerably.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

      • obispan says:

        Sorry to confuse you, “public on-site improvements”=streets, etc. And as were testing math skills, multiple 8,500 by 0.8, still a big lot.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  5. fishing village says:

    Doesn’t RRM have other employees who could have presented this project?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 6

    • MaryMalone says:

      I am sure they do. Its just that the “other employees” don’t sleep with Caren Ray and don’t have a position on the AG Planning Commission.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  6. sharshofar says:

    There are many of us that have lived here long enough to remember when Tony Ferrara and Joe Costello were voted into Arroyo Grande City Council because of the perceived shady activates of that current city council. Now it looks as if you stay in Arroyo Grande City Council long enough you look and act like the very one you were so passionate to replace. Arroyo Grande City Council has only one voice and that voice is, Tony Ferrara, the Council is his voice and the voice of all of the commissioners. Caren Ray will be the 4th District’s spokesman for Mr.. Ferrara if she is elected in. Time for a different voice representing us. At election time remember who the buddies are and let’s break up the alignment by casting our vote for a different voice. It is time people, as it has become to much and it is time to stop it. The time has come that we must make our Representatives represent us, instead of looking out for their own interest. Lastly, Thank you Otis Page for being a Watchman, you have always looked out for Arroyo Grande’s interest for as long as I can remember and, Often with a great deal of passion…Keep it up Otis…Keep it up, I only wish I had the time to be a watchman also so again THANK YOU OTIS PAGE.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 26 Thumb down 12

  7. Ben Daho says:

    How embarrassing that we’re even discussing this. If you’re involved in ANY influential discussion or APPEAR to be, back out. go away, man up, stop, disperse, etc. there are too many unethical business people on the coast. We read about whistleblowers getting fired for doing the right thing. And I’m personally sick and tired of reading about allegations involving homeless peoples gift cards being stolen (allegedly) and nothing is done, engineers getting paid millions over the years for allegedly faulty costly work in Oceano we hear about Grover’s mayor, (allegedly) Gibson, Hill and on and on and on. Where is the honor? Where is someone to say “not on my watch?” It’s sickening to watch the Libor screw us with fake interest rates, the Wall Street Banksters, Obama had a burger yesterday, Karen Rays dimples. No sharks in Avilla, Mb. Mayor fired, on and on and on (did I mention on and on and on?) it’s never ending drama.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 8

  8. shawn_estrada says:

    “Accuse of conflict of interest” is the key. Is their a real, actual, conflict of interest? NO. He didn’t take this to Planning Commission, where he would have to recuse himself through an ex-parte and remove himself from speaking on the matter, which means more than likely someone else will do the presentation to the commission from either RRM or the property owner. He said he would.

    This is the equivalent of saying a real estate agent on a council or commission shouldn’t be on the commission or council because they have a monetary gain by doing business in the City that they serve on a Commission or Council. Come on CCN. This is a crock of crap.

    Mr. Russom is not being paid by the developer. He is being paid by RRM. Did RRM select him because of his “knowledge of the process”? Maybe, that’s a great advantage to have if I am the developer. Did they select him as PM because of workload? Maybe, unless you work at RRM you won’t know.

    If you owned a private business would you like to be told whom you can and cannot put on a project? No. If I am a developer I am going to hire the firm that does a) the best job for the money and b) be in my court when the chips are down. It’s business remember. Free market economy, less we forget that.

    Developers contribute money to all types of campaigns. Is CCN going to run an expose on all the developer contributions to every candidate and how they influence outcomes? Do you have some data to go along with that? Wow you guys are really stretching here.

    Wake me up when there is an actual “crime” here. This commissioner is ONE OF FIVE votes. What influence does that have on a hearing? So it may go up as tie, in the end the council will decide. Does a commissioner have an influence of Staff? Probably not. Move along CCN…

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 23 Thumb down 37

    • Dexter says:

      No one said there was a crime and only the FPPC could determine if it is … but here is language from the FPPC guidelines on ethics training for public officials

      General Ethics Principles

      The discussion of general ethical principles should include the manner in which values such as trustworthiness, respect, fairness and responsibility promote public trust in government. It should also include the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

      How hard is it to comprehend the last sentence Shawn?

      Perhaps it is you who should move along right back into the ethics training class that you seem to have forgotten

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 25 Thumb down 18

    • hijinks says:

      “If you owned a private business would you like to be told whom you can and cannot put on a project?”

      You ask the wrong question. The question should be: “If you serve on a public commission, should you use restraint on whom you represent before the agency you serve?” It’s the unethical we-can-have-it-both-ways attitude of the Russoms of this world that is wrong. If he wants to serve the city, that has to impact how he does his daily work (i.e., public representation). I’d have no problem with him representing RRM before the city of Pismo Beach, because he has no position of public trust there, but doing it before Arroyo Grande is just plain wrong.

      Russom should, if he were ethical, have said to his employer that he cannot serve two masters at the same time, so they should get somebody else to take the project to the AG city council. Or he should resign from the planning commission. One or the other.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

    • MaryMalone says:

      Conflict of interest rules are in place to PREVENT crimes occurring.

      Your approach is the same as not having any speeding limits regulations in place but, instead, waiting until people are slaughtered on the highway.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  9. Dexter says:

    UNBELIEVABLE !!!!

    As a member of the planning commission Russom should know that even the appearance of a conflict should be avoided. That is what they teach in the ethics training and the city council knows it as well. Why didnt someone on the council raise the issue as a potential problem. Are they trying to elbow their way into the county’s top five most unethical government list?

    Of course I was simply shaking my head in disgust until I read that Russom was appointed to the commission by Caren Ray and that he is in a relationship with her. Now it makes perfect sense. It’s all about knowing who is buttering your bread.

    Caren Ray and this clown Russom are dirty public officials and the AG city council is apparently clueless … or maybe equally dirty.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 44 Thumb down 16

    • pasoparent5 says:

      Caren Ray and Randy Russom

      Adam Hill and Dee Torres

      Bruce Gibson and Cheri Aispuro

      Paavo Ogren and Maria Kelley

      See the pattern?

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 23 Thumb down 13

Leave a Comment