The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Councilmember Greenwald Conflicted Out Retroactively

Will Council have to revisit November Vote on B Street Project Based on FIVE Feet?

On November 5, the City Council heard an appeal of an application to develop four detached residences on the parcel at 233 B Street. The Planning Commission back in July denied the applications by a 5-2 vote based on inconsistencies with the Design Guidelines. All but one neighbor strongly opposed the design modification. Simply put it was a very innovative design and project that did not belong in the middle of an existing neighborhood.

The city council by a strange 2-2-1 vote where Councilmembers Greenwald and Heystek opposed the appeal and Councilmember Stephen Souza abstained. That vote gave the applicant, Maria Ogrydziak one year to work with her neighbors to come up with a more suitable project for that location. Following abstention, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor was not happy and provoked an angry exchange with his colleague and frequent ally on the council. He informed Councilmember Souza that due to his vote the project would be killed. The councilmember was well aware of the implications of his actions.

The councilmember said:
"I have a major conflict here trying to pit history against the environment."
Mr. Saylor responded:
"So you deny the project by not doing either."
That was clearly the intention of Mr. Souza's vote. What has now happened is that instead of working with her neighbors, Ms. Ogrydziak is working with Mayor Pro Tem Saylor to find a backdoor around the original vote.

Staff report attaches a January 4 letter from Ms. Ogrydziak to City Manager Bill Emlen.

In it she claims that they check and found that Councilmember Greenwald's property was 470 feet from the project and therefore she should be conflicted out.
"If Sue Greenwald had been recused, we would not have lost various votes (with Stephen's abstentions), and the project would still be alive. Therefore, I am requesting a re-consideration for the 233 B Street Project, without added City of Davis or Planning Department fees."
During that meeting, there was considerable question as to whether Councilmember Greenwald could vote on the project. As the staff report reads:
"ownership of property within 500 feet of a proposed development creates a rebuttal presumption of a conflict of interest for a public official."
In other words, anyone within 500 feet of a property is conflicted out from participating.
"Prior to the meeting, Councilmember Greenwald was advised that she did not own property within 500 feet of 233 B Street, and therefore did not have a conflict."
In fact, Councilmember Greenwald did not stop there, twice during the meeting prior to participation she specifically asked City Attorney Harriet Steiner if she had a conflict and was twice told that she did not. Based on that advice, she participated in the vote and discussion of this matter.

Now, nearly three months later, the city attorney is claiming there was an error and she is conflicted.
"This advice was incorrect, however, due to a drafting error in preparing the maps."
I am as concerned about process and conflicts of interest as anyone, perhaps more so. However, I have been told that she is 495 feet from the property. So somehow if she is 495 from the property she is conflicted out, but can vote if she is 500 feet or 501 feet. From a practical standpoint that does not make a lot of sense.

But just because she lives within 500 feet, does not necessarily mean she is conflicted out. She can show that she would not stand to benefit from the proposed development or lack thereof.

Here again we get into utter illogical advice from the City Attorney.
"It is possible that Councilmember Greenwald will seek a determination from a real estate professional, such as an appraiser or broker, that, notwithstanding the fact that her property is within 500 feet of the proposed development, the proposed development will have no impact on her property. If she obtains such an opinion, then she would not have a conflict on this matter. At this time, we do not know if Councilmember Greenwald will seek this further opinion."
This makes even less sense than ruling her conflicted out based on five feet. Councilmember Greenwald was basically told to hire a real estate agent to assess the impact of her property which is on Rice Lane, a side street nowhere in the vicinity of 233 B Street. The likelihood of an impact is extraordinarily remote. And yet, by asking her to obtain the opinion, you risk having an interested party making a ruling rather than the city hiring an expert who is impartial do the assessment. Talk about conflict of interest. Who would find such an expert's view compelling under those circumstances.

Apparently the mere fact of her participation does not negate the action taken by the Council in November.
"Councilmember Greenwald’s participation does not negate the action that was taken by the Council in November. The denial stands. The applicant has asked that the matter be reconsidered to allow a different vote on the applications.

Staff and the City Attorney agree that it is fair to provide the applicant with a new hearing."
Really fair to whom? To the neighbors? To the taxpayers of Davis? To the voters of Davis? To the process of democracy?

Fortunately, there is no guarantee that there will be three votes to have a new hearing. Mr. Souza specifically voted, albeit by abstention, to delay the project because he felt it ill-suited for the neighborhood. It seems unlikely he would change his mind, especially with this procedural nightmare.

To make matters worse, this item was place on CONSENT AGENDA, where it could have easily be hidden from the public and perhaps the council.
"Staff recommends the following approach:

- The applicant to re-submit applications for the project presented to the Council in
- The City to waive processing fees;
- The applications to be scheduled before the Council expeditiously, with no further
Planning Commission review;
- Minimal additional staff work or analysis, but reliance on the previous staff report."
This entire situation is appalling. Ms. Ogrydziak's project was strongly and vociferously opposed by every neighbor except for one. The planning commission denied it. The city council by a strange vote denied it. And instead of coming back and working with her neighbors, she has tried an end-run around the process seizing on an error and a technicality to try to invalidate the vote of one of the councilmembers.

To make matters worse, the city attorney, city manager, and city staff have bought into this.

All of this based on 5 feet (or even 30 feet as the applicant claims)? There have been some baffling things I have seen this city do, this one may take the cake. She presumes Councilmember Souza will still abstain--I think that is rather presumptuous of her given his expressed desire at that meeting and his likely reaction to this kind of maneuver. The Vanguard certainly hopes Mr. Souza does the right thing here and we have faith that he will.

---David M. Greenwald reporting