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May 9, 2010

Vested interest alert... and more on arts and cops in these tough budget times

Vested interests.

I've written about this concept before: whether it's right or wrong for people to have "vested interests" when it comes to how they position themselves on public issues. Readers used this term in debates about the Neiman Marcus controversy. Now, it’s popping up again in debates about the city budget and in discussions about the decision to go forward with building the library. Actually, the term “conflict of interest” is also showing up in comments.

To me,  “conflict of interest” applies to very specific, legal circumstances, and it suggests a public official who is doing something illegal. He or she is voting on a project, for instance, that would lead to direct personal financial gain.  

Just so you know, I checked in with City Attorney Paul Valle-Riestra in regards to one city council member, Cindy Silva. Someone in the comments raised the question: When she voted to approve funding for construction of the library in January 2007, did she have a conflict of interest? 

Given that she had been a paid, part-time consultant for the Walnut Creek Library Foundation and a volunteer campaigner for a library bond measure in 2005?

Valle-Riestra says no. He says she resigned from her consulting job with the foundation as soon as she was elected to the City Council in November 2006. She didn’t stand to gain financially from her yes vote on the library a few months later, and personal financial gain is the standard for a conflict-of-interest allegation, Valle-Riestra said.

As for her voting when she had a history of advocacy for this project, Valle-Riestra said that politicians vote on issues all the time in which they have a personal interest or bias.  We might be uncomfortable with that sometimes, but there is nothing illegal about it. 

“People have sued politicians for voting in favor of projects for which they campaign during elections, and show a strong bias,” he said. “The courts have said that politicians are supposed to have strongly held views of issues during campaigns. If they kept silent about their biases, we wouldn’t have much of a democracy.”

Now that we’re talking about this council person’s bias and work and volunteer history with regard to this major downtown project, I might as well reveal a potential bias of my own as I continue to blog about the city budget.

Up until recently, I edited Diablo Arts, the magazine that is distributed to patrons at the Lesher Center. As that magazine's editor, I talked regularly to Lesher Center and Diablo Regional Arts Association staff, and to people involved with local performing arts groups.
And, just so you know,I was a big drama geek in high school. So, I like the theater, and I like artsy people.

The talent, creativity and drive of some of Walnut Creek's arts folks added to my sense that it is really cool to live and work in this town. Maybe you could say I drank the arts Kool-Aid, but I do see arts and culture as an asset to the city. Now, and in the long term. 

For example, the city made a huge investment back in the 1980s to build the Lesher Center, which opened in 1990. 
It transformed the downtown, for good or for bad, depending on your position.

Walnut Creek’s happening night life sure keeps the police busy on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I witnessed that first hand when I went out with the police on a ride along last weekend. And, I didn't even go out on the very busy shift last Saturday night/Sunday morning when the officers rounded up 10 drunks and three drunk drivers and carted them off to County Jail in their new special van for just this purpose. 

Through this blog, and more recently, I've had the pleasure of meeting officers and administrators in the police department. As it is with those artsy people, I have come away from my contacts with Walnut Creek police with the sense that it is really cool to live and work in this town. 

Oh, some more disclosure in terms of my background. Besides being an arts geek, I am also a cop/crime geek. For much of my career as a daily newspaper reporter, I had the police beat, including in Richmond--at a time when there were up to three murders in a single week. (I might still have a trashy crime novel or a few true-crime exposes in my future.) As a police reporter, I came to respect the job that everyone in a police department--from patrol officers to the detectives to the chief--does. 

I understand the position of some people that when times get tough, public entities have to make difficult choices about programs to eliminate. I agree that public safety is one of those investments that shouldn’t be shortchanged.  I also believe, though, that Walnut Creek needs to keep up its investment in arts and culture.  These programs are crucial to the town’s identity and, ultimately, to its economic vitality.

Maybe, as these very difficult budget negotiations continue, I will need to become a parks and recreation geek and a public services geek. 

33 comments:

Daffodil Hugger said...

Thanks SM,

Valid information about legalities of "conflict of interest" accusations combined with interesting thoughts about the ways people can support their causes.

What I liked in particular about this post was your knowledge of both arts and public safety areas of interest. If more people take the time to explore the benefits provided by government in various service areas, perhaps we will all benefit. Oh yes, I do recommend that you go take a walk in a park or open space, too. There are many great "free" opportunities around here that are supported by our taxes.

Anonymous said...

You asked a guy if his boss was involved in a conflict of interest. What do you think he is going to say? But thanks for asking the questions no one else is SM.

Anonymous said...

I've met jerk attorneys who had to be recused from court cases for conflict of interest. Happens all over town, every day. Many people don't even care or bother to pursue the truth. Nor do they understand what the word "recuse" even means. Sad.

If you want a little fun someday, take a look at all the attorneys who have been sued for malpractice. They're working all over Walnut Creek. Not hard to find.

Thanks for looking into this.

Anonymous said...

I think the question we have to examine is what are our priorities? I enjoy the RCA (I love Diablo Arts by the way) however it seems clear to me we have become use to giving money to everyone. Look at how people are pounding their fists on the table about the city taking away relatively small amounts of money from a few groups and programs. The fact no other cities in this area spend such large amounts on Arts and Recreation doesn't faze them a bit. We have created a sense of entitlement among many. Entitlements that we can only afford in the best of times. I had to laugh when I read former Mayor Charlie Abrams was upset programs and services were being cut. This was one of 3 or 4 people that made sure the library got fully funded at all costs. He helped put us in this situation. He is a WC Chamber of Commerce guy as well so who knows where his interests are.

I guess my opinions changed after my home was broken into late last year while my wife was in the house. I realized how important it was to "feel safe" in your home and your community. The walnut creek police officer that came out to my house did a great job but what can they really do after the fact? I thought I'd have investigators working day and night to catch this guy until I learned 1 or 2 homes were being broken into every day and only one detective handled these types of crimes. Think of how bad it is in cities with real budget problems? The bottom line is that we need to support our police and look out for our neighbors. This is lacking in many of the communities stricken with high violent crime. Let face it, would anyone really go to the RCA or shop downtown if they didn't feel safe here? Of course not. We are discussing this stuff like there is a logical choice between things like public safety, infrustructure spending and everything else. The arts are a wonderful luxury. I know people who work in these industries or depend on the city money will argue differently but they are just that-a luxury. I also know these are hard choices for the city council. These are the people they have to face at parties, public events, library meetings etc. They don't show up to neighbor watch meetings or a victim's home after a crime. In short they don't have to face victims or people who want to make public safety a priority. We are however without a doubt the silent majority. City leaders have generally steered a wise course over the years with a few notable exceptions (can you say library!). In these tough times what to cut and what not to is a no-brainer. They simply have to find the strength to get it done.

AKA Soccer Mom said...

Dear Anon 10:35...

Would you like to write a guest blog sometime? If you represent a silent majority in Walnut Creek, then you eloquently expressed their concerns. And I'm sorry about your home being broken into and your wife being there. Feel free to email followup comments to the email below.

Anonymous said...

Hi SM,

Thank you for the leg work on conflict of interest. In my previous comments on the subject, if I may, I was not looking at conflict of interest in terms of the legal definition, which is more narrow.

An example From wikipedia:
Someone accused of a conflict of interest may deny that a conflict exists because he/she did not act improperly. In fact, a conflict of interest can exist even if there are no improper acts as a result of it.

I would have not had in issue if the consulting work in question had not been directly related to "selling and marketing" the new library. For example, consulting on the administration of the organization's email server, is very different than consulting about how to craft and deliver the message to the voters and the city for funding.
And that is only complicated, for me at least, by the fact that the person was also the executive director of the organization, who was succeeded in that role by the city council member she basically replaced.

While the situation may not meet the requirements of the legal definition of CoI, I still have doubts about Mrs Silva's objectivity in representing the the best interests of the City when measured against her extensive efforts, and personal connections where all things library are concerned. I am pretty sure I am not alone in that concern.

Anonymous said...

"Given that she had been a paid, part-time consultant for the Walnut Creek Library Foundation and a volunteer campaigner for a library bond measure in 2005?"

Gosh that sort of minimizes her involvement, or at least puts an innocent spin, here are a couple more that might help fill out picture.

*The Executive Director of the foundation.
*Co-Chair, Yes! A New Walnut Creek Library Committee
*Walnut Creek Library Advisory Team

Anonymous said...

SM I hope you read this comment

Have you seen this website?
http://www.newwclibrary.org/
Its part of the Library foundation's web portfolio.

Check out the "campaign cabinet"
Notice Sue Rainey and Cindy Silva are both listed? Awfully hard to believe there is any objectivity there.

Just for fun, I ran a whois on the domain name newwclibrary.org, imagine my surprise to see who is listed as the administrative and technical contact for the domain, none other than Cindy Silva

Daffodil Hugger said...

11:48,

It is also public knowledge that all City Council members and many City staff have contributed to the Capital Campaign for the library.

I question anyone who demands complete objectivity in decision-making processes. If you were on Council, would you be completely objective? Claiming that during a campaign, you would be subject to some serious questioning.

Anonymous said...

Please name a single Walnut Creek city employee (excluding Council) that donated to the library? This stuff stinks. Rainey and Silva should have recused themselves from any library votes-including the ones they should be taking to keep the doors shut until the city is back on its feet. Fund the police department and public works 100%. Walnut Creek could easily do this even with the lowered revenues. Get community input on how to spend whatever is left (arts and rec programs, operational costs of the library etc).

Anonymous said...

Contributing to a campaign, is not the same thing as leading the campaign, consulting for the campaign, and then having a controlling stake in the outcome.

If I were on the Council, and had web of interactions, a professional relationship, and a prior leadership role in an organization whose purpose is to build a new whatever on the city's dime, YES I would absolutely recuse myself from participating in financial decisions regarding that organizations interests. A council person represents the city's population not self interests.

And if perhaps I were in a similar situation,and everything was on the up and up, not only would I recuse myself, but I would make damn certain that my name WAS NOT all over the organizations marketing collateral, and legal and official document artifacts.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that Ms Silva is considering running for supervisor. I would imagine that a succesful library campaign would be a feather in her bonnet yet with this "legal" conflict of interest issue maybe not? Everyone at City Hall knew what was going on, wonder if anyone ever suggested to her that this could be a conflict?

I received a flyer in "The Nutshell" from the Library foundation, it included an announcement that they're looking to raise another $5,000,000. Would this be to pay for staff or books or what?

David said...

Well, now people are just spreading lots of rumors without any justification...and anonymously.

1:19 - From who did you hear Cindy Silva was running for supervisor? C'mon -- be bold and give us your source (or at least YOUR name). I have not heard this from Ms. Silva or anyone else.

9:33 - You, in a way, said that the City Attorney would not be impartial in his interpretation of conflict of interest law. How rude. You obviously do not know Paul Valle Riestra; I do. In my opinion, he would never do this. He is a very ethical man in all if my dealings with him. Paul answers to himself before he answers to anyone else. And I suggest that you read up the rules/laws that define "conflict of interest" before you ramble on further.

By the way, where is Cindy Silva gaining personal benefit from this library? I do not see any. She has worked hard to help make happen something she feels strongly in -- for the people of WC. She gets nothing but barbs thrown at her. Believe me -- I do not agree with everything Cindy has done on the council. Heck, I don't even agree with everyone in my own house all the time. But, in Cindy, I definitely see someone who has spent much time working to better the City for us all.

And again people - if you are going to criticize, be upfront about it and share who you are and not hide behind the "anonymous" cloak. It's too easy a way out. Dave Powell

Anonymous said...

Cindy played a huge role in my kids' lives, as parent volunteer at countless school tasks, and as fields coordinator for WC Soccer Club. Anybody who has played so many vital roles in our community is bound to have (the appearance of) old vested interests lying around.

Confidential source said...

Well Dave, anon or not doesn't really change the point. Heck SM pretty much keeps her identity close to the belt too.

Remind me, what is the perception of why the last city manager was shown the door? Was it because he bucked at the cost of the library?

I am sort of surprised that you don't see "any" personal benefit for mrs Silva as her path to council is pretty much paved with library related interests. It's a major part of her deck on leadership qualifications. Then list the foundation as a client of her marketing and communications expertise to prop up her business experience. And the foundation plasters her name all over the place as a supporter, and a member of their leadership cabinet. That's a 2 way street that results in "political capital" for her. Do you think they would still do that if she voted against library funding?

In and of itself that is fine, our council is part time and everyone has interests. But I have to say when your "interest' and/or your passion intersects with your position of authority representing the city, you should recognize how that looks, and simply recuse yourself from the financial side.
After all she is in a position to sway how the city spends tax revenue, or in fact doesn't spend tax revenue, and its obvious at least to me she will lean to the library in the case of a tough choice.

Anonymous said...

As long as things stay under the radar the council will cut public safety, public works etc to the bone under the guise of financial hardship. As the last poster said, given the priorities (and apparent self-interest) of Silva and others do you really think they will cut the pet projects they have worked so hard on? Times like these are when leadership and morals come into play. Will you do what most residents want and what is best for the city or just keep peeing down our backs telling us its raining? We are watching and waiting.

Anonymous said...

Library Foundation Campaign Cabinet
J. Kendall Anderson
President and CEO, John Muir Health

Kathy Hicks
Former Mayor, City of Walnut Creek

Roger Haughton
Chairman of the Board, PMI Group, Inc.(retired)

Guy Henshaw
Managing Director, Henshaw/Vierra Management Counsel

Peg Kovar
Former Mayor, City of Walnut Creek

Thomas Mader
Rossmoor

Allan Moore
Gagen, McCoy, McMahon, Koss, Markowitz & Raines

Tapan Munroe
Economist

Sue McNulty Rainey
Mayor, City of Walnut Creek

Gwen Regalia
Former Mayor, City of Walnut Creek

Cindy Silva
Mayro Pro Tem, City of Walnut Creek

Sandy Skaggs
Former Mayor, City of Walnut Creek

Michael and Mercedes Stead
Stead Automotive

Steering Committee
Jim Moore, Co-chair
President/Chief Operating Officer, Bedford Properties Investors (retired)

Thomas Donahoe, Co-chair
President, Pacific Telesis Foundation (retired)

Edward F. Del Beccaro, Foundation President
Senior Managing Partner, Colliers International

Bob Brittain
Commissioner, Walnut Creek Parks, Recreation and Open Space

Diane Longshore
Former Mayor, City of Concord

Bob said...

To ANONYMOUS 4:07,

In case you were unaware, the Capital Campaign for the new library is and has been an effort to raise PRIVATE funds from citizens and foundations for the new library, not to increase the contribution from City funds. The campaign has already raised the $5,000,000 pledged and is now trying to raise the additional $500,000 cut from the budget by the City Council last year. Many people and organizations have donated even though times are hard right now.

Now that you have some relevant facts, is it somehow a bad thing that these people volunteered their time to increase library funding with citizens' voluntary donations? A similarly successful effort was carried out to help fund the Lafayette library. Back in the late 1980s citizens also helped to build the Lesher Center.

I have been proud to work on the Capital Campaign with all of the people on this list.

Bob Brittain

Bat Masterson said...

Mr. Brittan,
I am not 4:07 but I find it curious that you would read into 4:07's post as being somehow negative? It is without any comment from the poster a cut and paste from the one of the library foundation's own pages.

http://www.newwclibrary.org/leadership.html

Which also serves as an indication that Mrs. Rainey and Mrs. Silva are currently involved with Library efforts in tandem with their Council responsibilities.

It's also another item to add to SM's consideration of:

"Given that she had been a paid, part-time consultant for the Walnut Creek Library Foundation and a volunteer campaigner for a library bond measure in 2005?"

David said...

Confidential source - I don't know why the former City Manager left. I guess I would he would have to be asked his take on it. I suggest those who speculate go ahead and do that instead of assuming. I do not believe the council members from that time can say so as it is a personnel issue. And by the way, Cindy Silva was not on the city council when he left.

Speaking again of Cindy, did anyone not know at the time she was elected that she had been a consultant for the library project? She never hid that item, and the library was still at the top of many people's list of projects the city should not undertake. So to take this stance now, 3-1/2 years later, I think is kinda unfair.

And as for her personal benefit, I actually meant to say personal financial benefit. She has gained nothing financial resulting from the library project. And anything she does now for the library does not pay her. As for political benefit, maybe some could say yes, but with a project as controversial as the library, you really have to believe in its benefits to all to take such a stance.

Actually, this topic thread has been a bit better from some others. At least I am not seeing any direct slurs against folks. However, I would ask people to really try to put facts over rumor when making accusatory statements, or qualify things as their own opinion. I try to as often as I can, and urge you to, also.

Thanks, SM, for this forum. Hope you are feeling better as the day goes on. Dave Powell

Anonymous said...

Good onya Bat!

One might also suggest that Mr. Brittain, though he is a nice man, might just have a bit of a conflict of interest himself.....seems his wife Cindy Brittain is the head librarian at the downtown branch.

Great that Mr. Brittain cares enough to help in fund raising but it might be wiser to do the work without serving on the official Steering Committee. He should also be cautious about using his City Council appointed seat on the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Commission as his only identifier. There is nothing wrong or demeaning about the title 'community volunteer' as an identity for a worthy cause.

Bob said...

Hi folks posting lately,

I'm not on the Park, Recreation and Open Space Commission any more. I had a term limit of two three-year terms, which ended in March, 2010. It was a wonderful experience to serve on the PROS Commission! I agree that the newwclibrary.org website needs to update my role to just plain Bob, or something like that.

I was working for the new library a long time before the current Sr. Librarian came to work here. She supervises the Ygnacio Library, the Park Place temporary library and will supervise the new downtown library when it opens. I know for a fact that she does not get a salary increase because of the new library. She's expecting a pay cut. She is paid by the County, not the City.

Oh, by the way, we are contributing as much as we can financially to the new library project. What's wrong with that?

Bob Brittain

Anonymous said...

Some random thoughts:

1. Endless whining and carping about the library is pointless and tiresome. It's been built.

Libraries offer services and opportunities to a wide spectrum of the populace: children, students, the elderly, job seekers, and readers of every sort. I'd much rather see public money spent on a library than about any other civic purpose.

2. WC's budget shortfall this year is 20 million. Assuming that all the public dollars that were spent on the library were still available for use, they would only balance the budget for a single year. Then what?

3. Walnut Creek has more than twice as many police per capita as other cities of comparable size.

Does the level and gravity of crime here really justify that? Further, if, as SM seems to indicate, a significant portion of law enforcement time is occupied in policing downtown restaurants and bars, then police are, in effect, providing an expensive security service to a select group of businesses ---and I'm not sure why the citizenry of WC as a whole should pay for that.

4. WC's city manager's and city attorney's combined salaries are pushing half a million dollars a year. Does a city of 60,000 really require that level of management services?

Anonymous said...

Wow, now that's a claim worth backing up. Please tell us how many police officers Walnut Creek has per capita and how many the surrounding cities have? Please add the daytime and evening transitory populations that also drain police services. I'll let that sit for awhile knowing you won't respond since there is no truth to it. I'll reply for you with the real answer in a day or two.
Lafayette raised some private money for their library. More important they won a state grant to help cover most construction costs. Walnut Creek applied three times-and lost.
Yes, the library is built. After a year or so of reserve savings who is going to cover the costs to pay Mr. Brittain's wife and the scores of other city employees? Who is going to pay to light, heat, cool, clean, repair etc. the building for the next 20 years?

Anonymous said...

You might have missed the part about Mr. Brittain's wife not being a city employee.

Anonymous said...

Hey, 11:20, my comment with regard to police staffing levels was incorrect. I never could read graphs. WC appears to in line with other neighboring cities of similar size.

Otherwise????

It's my understanding that librarians are employed by the county. Your argument regarding the other costs of the new library (lighting, heating, cleaning, repairs) doesn't seem valid since those ongoing charges would be incurred even if the old library were still around.

And, I have no idea who Mr. Brittain's wife is.

Anonymous said...

1. Walnut Creek has a lower number of police officers per capita than most surrounding cities. In fact Walnut Creek now has the same number of officers they did in 1987. This does not even take into account that WC has the highest daytime population around (shoppers, workers and retired folks that don't leave the city to go to work) and it has the highest evening population rise due to diners, bar hoppers etc.
2) She may not be a city employee but Walnut Creek will have to cover her salary if you want to see the library open for more than a few hours per day. As the county pulls back funding for their employees the City is exploring ways to make up the difference with local tax dollars.
3) If you think the bills for utilities and upkeep for the new library will be even remotely close to the old building that was 1/10 the size I have a bridge and a few REO homes to sell you.

Please people, check your facts before posting.

Anonymous said...

4:53 - so where are you facts about the utility bills. What was the monthly cost of the old library, what is the expected cost of the new. How much does the county pay for utilities vs. the city.

Waiting for your complete analysis.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude the new ginormous library will cost ALOT more to run.

Anonymous said...

4:53 - Forcefully stated speculation and conjecture and are still just speculation and conjecture. It's amusing that you admonish others to "check [their] facts" when your post contains not a one.

Anonymous said...

Sorry dude but I'm with him. Have you even driven by that building?

Anonymous said...

Silva needs to go.

Anonymous said...

Why is none of this stuff in the paper?