Bank board links Santa Margarita Ranch developer, supervisor
November 2, 2008
By KAREN VELIE
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Katcho Achadjian occupies a salaried seat on a local bank’s board of directors along with a key developer in the proposed Santa Margarita Ranch project.
Achadjian’s vote on plans for the Santa Margarita Ranch could be the determining factor in the project’s future. The supervisor and Douglas Filipponi both sit on the board of Santa Lucia National Bank (SLNB). Filipponi and partners Rob Rossi and Karl Wittstrom are presenting the controversial housing development project to a divided Board of Supervisors for approval, perhaps on Tuesday.
Achadjian is paid $2,000 a month for his service on the SLNB board, which includes salary and life insurance policy premiums. He receives undisclosed reimbursement for expenses incurred while conducting bank business.
Santa Margarita Ranch co-developers Rossi and Wittstrom sit on Mission Community Bank’s director’s board. Achadjian owns shares in SLNB, Mid-State Bank, and Mission Community Bank worth between $200,000 and $2 million, according to information Achadjian filed with a state agency in Feb. 2007.
In a two-paragraph letter last week to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), Achadjian asked if “a potential conflict of interest” existed if he were to vote on the project, citing his membership on the SLNB board. He did not disclose his financial relationship with either Mid-State Bank or Mission Community Bank in the letter to the FPPC.
Achadjian had a subsequent telephone conversation with Valentina Joyce, legal counsel for the FPPC, during which the supervisor suggested that SLNB would “have no involvement in the development project.”
As planned, the Santa Margarita Ranch would be a staged project designed for the eventual construction of 400 homes on 14,000 acres. Tuesday’s vote will be for approval of the project’s initial stage, 111 homes on 4,000 acres and will be the only action taken by the board on the Ranch issue before two new board members are seated in January. The board’s present 3-2 pro-development tilt will likely be reversed when Adam Hill and Frank Mecham assume their posts.
Based on information provided by Achadjian, the FPPC issued an opinion in just two days which informed the supervisor, “So long as you do not have any other economic interests that may be materially affected by the decisions, you may participate in governmental decisions regarding the development project.”
The FPPC’s Joyce added, “We … offer no opinion on the application, if any, of other conflict of interest laws such as common law conflict” or other state laws. Joyce said the opinion was based on the supposition that the supervisor’s vote “will not have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect on the economic interest of the bank you have identified (SLNB).”
Achadjian said he considered the FPPC’s swift reply to his inquiry adequate to ensure that his vote Tuesday was free of potential conflict.
“The FPPC said that if I have no investment in the project, the answer is no (to any conflict),” Achadjian said. “I asked county counsel, [and] they said if I owned property nearby there would be a conflict. I don’t.”
Achadjian added, “With as many people as I know, I should resign from the Board [of Supervisors]? Where do I draw the line?”
He said he has no plan to recuse himself from the vote.
“If it comes to it, I would resign from the bank board,” he said. “I want to serve the community and vote on the issue.”
Achadjian has recused himself in the past from votes he thought would place him in conflict because businesses owned by him, including a service station, might benefit financially.
A homeowners’ association officer said he sees a problem with Achadjian’s vote on Santa Margarita Ranch.
“He obviously has business associations with the owners of the Ranch,” said Santa Margarita Residents Together President John Beccia. “I think it makes it difficult for him to be impartial in his decisions.”
But Tina Salter, a former member of the Santa Margarita Advisory Council, disagreed. “I certainly don’t see a conflict,” she said. “You can find perceived conflicts with every [supervisor] member just because they serve on some board.”
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