Ashbaugh votes in disregard of state ruling
August 26, 2014
By KAREN VELIE
CORRECTION: John Ashbaugh does not own property in the airport area. He does own property in a focus area of the land use update and because of that the FPPC had ruled that he could not vote on any part without a favorable ruling for that one meeting, which he did not receive before the meeting.
(Editor’s note: A ruling from the California Fair Political Practice Commission regarding San Luis Obispo City Council Members John Ashbaugh and Dan Carpenter’s financial conflicts of interest is at the bottom of this story.)
San Luis Obispo Councilman John Ashbaugh voted on a land use issue even after a formal ruling by the California Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) prohibited him from doing so because of a financial conflict of interest, in an action that places him and the city at risk.
On Aug. 19, the council was set to discuss whether or not it should attempt to overrule a 40-year-old Airport Land Use Commission’s determination of where the airport safety boundaries should lie. Around airports, safety requirements generally do not allow high density residential units to be built.
Three developers, seeking higher residential density regulations, have proposed projects in the safety zone.
Gary Grossman is in escrow on the former Dalidio ranch located between Highway 101 and Madonna Road. Grossman wants to dramatically lower the amount of retail space already approved through the county and increase the number residential units on the property he is working to annex into the city.
Unlike Dalidio, Grossman has considerable political clout. Grossman has already donated more than $16,000 in 2014 to political allies of Major Jan Marx and Ashbaugh.
The initial action of the process to overrule the commission requires three votes. Before the end of October, the council will make a final decision, which requires a four-fifths vote.
Nevertheless, three council members own property in a focus and appear to have financial conflicts of interest. The Political Reform Act bars public officials from participating in discussion or votes on issues where they have a conflict of interest.
Because the vote to have the council overrule the commission requires three votes, city attorney Christine Dietrick asked the FPPC for advice.
In February, the FPPC sent a formal reply in which it concluded that both Ashbaugh and Carpenter had financial conflicts of interest because they own property in the area and should not vote on the airport land issue.
Last week, Council Member Kathy Smith said she felt she also has a conflict of interest and would not vote.
Dietrick then advised both Councilmen Dan Carpenter and Ashbaugh not to vote on the issue and recommended continuing the item until she received further advice from the FPPC.
Ashbaugh, however, said he did not agree that he had a financial conflict of interest. He then said he would not recuse himself.
Dietrich responded by informing Ashbaugh that the city could not protect him from enforcement action by the FPPC.
“I am not worried about that,” Ashbaugh responded.
While the FPPC enforcement actions are limited to public officials, Ashbaugh’s action could result in that council’s decision being overturned or possible legal actions against the city.
In addition, overruling the commission’s rules on residential high density around the airport could result in safety and financial risks to the city and its residents. There have been six fatal accidents in the current safety zone in the past 15 years.
Proponents of overruling the commission, point at the importance of increasing residential development inside the city.
The FPPC permits the “Rule of Necessity,” where so many members of a council have a conflict of interest that less than a quorum of members are left to vote on an issue. The Rule of Necessity allows “conflicted” members of a council to draw straws, to permit enough of those with a conflict to vote to create a quorum.
However, the rule did not apply to last week’s vote, Ashbaugh had not been chosen to vote on whether to move the decision to override the airport commission, but voted even when the city attorney advised against doing so in opened session. Nevertheless, it could be used in the final vote slated for later this year.
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