August 20, 2009

Betty Wasn't The First

Last Tuesday's City Council meeting was one for the record book.

It was the first time the Poway Council used teleconferencing during a council meeting. Both Betty Rexford and Merrilee Boyack were physically absent but connected via a telephone hookup.

It was also the first time that a council member was asked to resign by the rest of the council. At the end of the regular meeting, the council met in a closed session to discuss a lawsuit against the city by some of Betty Rexford's neighbors who claimed that she inappropriately directed the planning department to make their lives miserable. After the session, Mayor Don Higginson announced a settlement. The city the people of Poway would pay the Rexford's neighbors $360,000 and the entire council asked Mrs. Rexford to resign.

“The recent decision of the court in this case has demonstrated that settlement is necessary to protect the city from greater exposure to damages and significant future legal costs if the case goes to trial,” Higginson read from a statement on behalf of the council.

“Further, it is clearly inappropriate for any City Council member to interfere in the city's administrative functions, such as the development projects that were the subject of this case. It is apparent to the City Council that the public trust has been irrevocably damaged, and that even the appearance that the council member acted in her self-interest is unacceptable.

“Therefore, it is with great sadness that we ask council member Rexford to consider stepping down from her position on the Poway City Council.”

While the city settled with the plaintiffs, Rexford and her husband were also personally named in the suit. Apparently, that part of the suit has also been settled.

Daral Mazzarella, the attorney fof the plaintiffs, said his clients settled that part for $40,000. Mazzarella also said that while his clients had sought the resignation of Rexford, he had been under the impression that her fellow councilmembers would not seek it.

“I was surprised to see that,” Mazzarella said of the resignation request, which he termed “appropriate.”

Rexford contends that she did nothing wrong; that she had the right as a private citizen to complain to city staff about her neighbors. And she does. But Rexford also had something the average citizen didn't have. Clout. When she pestered the staff, they listened. And acted. Way more than they would for the average Poway resident. Maybe that is because the poor blokes are "hired and fired at will" and pretty much have to sell their souls to be a Poway planner in the first place. Anyway, the judge in the case ruled that there was plenty enough evidence to go forward with a trial. Once the case was going to trial, the city decided to cut their losses and settle.

On Saturday, a SDUT editorial also called for Rexford to quit. The editorial repeated the words from Mayor Higginson's statement:

it is “clearly inappropriate for any City Council member to interfere in the city's administrative functions ... It is apparent to the City Council that the public trust has been irrevocably damaged, and that even the appearance that the council member acted in her self-interest is unacceptable.”

"....clearly inappropriate for any City Council member to interfere in the city's administrative function." They need to print that up and glue it all over the walls in the council members' offices. I mean, in another decision on that very same night that the council issued this statement, the council agreed to give a permit to a guy who built a baseball diamond on his private lot. He had previously been turned down for a permit for a larger project. Afterwards, Mickey Cafagna had supposedly told the homeowner to go ahead and build the smaller project without a permit. I wish I had $10 for every time I heard that Mickey gave someone "permission" to do something the Poway code doesn't allow.

Higginson is no stranger to directing the staff to do stuff for a friend either. In 1993, Bruce Tabb (developer of Old Coach Golf Estates) called up Jim Nessel, a senior Poway planner and "lambasted" him because his property was not identified on SANDAG maps as "disturbed". Somehow, the property had been graded (more times than it had permits for) and SANDAG was unaware of the results. Nessel was so upset with being harangued by Bruce Tabb that he wrote a memo and put it in the city files. In that letter, Nessel notes:

Mr Tabb could not recall exactly what SANDAG map he looked at, and I told him it may have been a historic vegetation map of the region and suggested that all map data layers prepare for the habitat evaluation model be reviewed. During the phone conversation, Mayor Higginson got on the line in Mr. Tabb's office and encouraged me to help Mr. Tabb with his problem. (emphasis added)

Remember Jay Goldby, former city council member (and more recently manager of a nudist enclave)? Goldby owned a print shop in Poway. As a council member, he steered business to his shop. The city used a $90,000 transportation grant to buy a bus, paint it to look cute and route it around town from shopping area to shopping area. The City approved a program whereby the Chamber of Commerce was allowed to solicit advertisers to put signs in the back windows of the bus. The paperwork for the signs directed all customers to have the work done at Jay's sign shop. Nifty, eh?

Jay also got embroiled in a deal involving directional signs for the car dealers. The City agreed (and Jay voted for it) to pay for the posts and the property and the dealers were to pay for their individual slats. The car dealers had already had some of the work done at Jay's shop, before the other council members reprimanded him for "the appearance of impropriety". Goldby then agreed to have some other company make the signs. It should be noted that the Chamber never got anyone to buy any advertising space on the bus, so technically Goldby did not accrue a benefit from having voted for the project. It should also be noted that it was a rare event when the bus had a passenger. And those directional car signs with the dealers names on them? The city had to remove them 'cause they were illegal.

We can go back even further, to the very beginning of our fair city, to find more "appearances of impropriety". In the early 1980s, four landowners in the northern part of Poway attempted to subdivide their property. The city wanted them to build improvements, including paved roads, as a condition of the split. The landowners balked and complained that the improvements to the properties were unnecessary and would benefit council member Bob Emery and City Attorney Jean Harris. Bob owned 6 nearby acres just outside the city limits. Harris owned acreage on Eagle's Crest Rd, which he had subdivided without having to build the same improvements that were required of the landowners.

There were court suits, grand jury investigations and an indictment. Bob skated. Harris had gotten a former city attorney to say it was OK for Bob to vote on the issue. But in a strange turn of events, the county planning department determined that Jean Harris's lot subdivision was illegal. The D.A. also did a criminal investigation. Harris signed a plea agreement and got 3 yrs probation. He might have gotten worse, but the D.A. made some mistake when they raided his office and so the plea agreement was the best they could get. Harris also resigned his city attorney position in Poway. Two years after the plea deal, Harris hadn't made his court-ordered restitution and the judge threatened to revoke his probation. I have no idea where he landed after that. Perhaps he is sunbathing in the buff up on his property.

There are a couple of reasons why Poway council members might be more prone to conflicts of interest. First of all, they do not have any ethics ordinances or an ethics commission like the City of San Diego does. Poway is a general law city and does have to abide by state laws. But state laws do not require council members to keep a calendar or log of who they meet with or what their activities are. What goes on behind closed doors stays behind the closed doors. Most of the decisions in Poway are made behind closed doors.

Another problem is that the council members are the planning commission and redevelopment agency, too. They wear all 3 hats at once. Their is no counter-balancing authority to appeal to. By the time a project goes before the council for approval, and the public finally has an opportunity to see and comment on it, it is too late. Likely, several of the council members have been personally involved with shaping the project. They may have even introduced the developer and project themselves and met with the developers or their representatives several times. The council members have likely discussed things with staff. Or maybe called staff on someone's behalf.

Even workshops and neighborhood meetings are more like infomercials than a forum where the community gets to give real input. Remember the town center meetings? People said they wanted something with a lot of open space and a rural feel. In their report afterwards, the staff as much as said, "We listened to you and we came up with some 4- story retail and residential buildings. But don't worry, we heard you, we're gonna have some vines growing on the 3-story parking garage that will give it a lovely rustic flair." I can hardly blame the staff. They do what they are told. Or they can be fired. So, some council member's buddy comes up with a great development project and the staff has to stuff it down our throats even if they know the community does not want it.

I'm at odds about Betty's resignation. On the one hand, it is clear she crossed an ethical line. It seems as if she doesn't even realize it. That is scary in itself. Betty has been very ineffectual in the last several years, as she has focused on subdividing her own property and getting concessions from developers that could benefit her property. Also, she seems to be increasingly unable to understand the complexity of council issues and relies on one or two individuals to help her make decisions.

On the other hand, I don't want another council appointment. That process sucks. A council appointment is like a gateway drug. Without term limits, incumbency seems to bestow near-lifetime status in Poway. Too many times in this community, a mere handful of people have controlled our fate. If Betty does resign, we should have a say, a vote, for her successor.


connie said...

As usual, Chris gives an excellent account of Poway politics. I agree with her that I do not want another appointment. Poway council members love to live in the past. They will appoint another one of their longtime friends who will keep things as usual; an inside job.

steve said...

Chris - I'd like to be able to connect with you.