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Arroyo Grande to consider alleged commissioner conflict of interest

This architectural rendering shows how South Courtland Street in Arroyo Grande would look if the proposed development is built.
This architectural rendering shows how South Courtland Street in Arroyo Grande would look if the proposed development is built. Courtesy rendering

An Arroyo Grande planning commissioner is under fire for what some claim was a violation of state conflict of interest laws, stemming from his vote against a commercial and residential development at Courtland Street and Grand Avenue.

Although the complaint was dismissed by the state Fair Political Practices Commission last week, the Arroyo Grande City Council will still consider removing Commissioner John Mack from the Planning Commission in November.

On Wednesday, the FPPC said it has received and is examining new evidence on the case.

NKT Commercial developer Nick Tompkins filed a complaint with the state FPPC on Oct. 15, alleging that Mack used his position on the Planning Commission to vote on and influence City Council decisions regarding Tompkins’ Courtland development, which is four blocks from Mack’s residence on Loganberry Avenue.

The development was approved by the City Council on Oct. 8.

“Over the last five years, if not longer, Mr. Mack has consistently opposed virtually every effort of Mr. Tompkins and his related entity to obtain approval of a development and improvement plan for the Courtland project,” Tompkins wrote in his complaint to the FPPC, noting that Mack co-owned the property in the Berry Gardens neighborhood.

There is a perception — whether that perception is fair, whether that perception is true — but there is a perception out there that there has been questionable conduct by one of our planning commissioners.

Barbara Harmon, Arroyo Grande City Council member

Mack has been outspoken about his concerns with proposals for the Courtland property in the past, including speaking against the project at the City Council approval hearing on Oct. 8.

According to Tompkins, Mack has used his position on the commission as a conduit for his personal disapproval.

On Aug. 18, the Planning Commission held a public hearing to consider its recommendation of the development to the City Council.

Mack participated in the discussion and voted to recommend against the project — Tompkins himself suggested the commission vote against the project so that he would be able to take the item before the City Council the next month, rather than being held up at the Planning Commission as he attempted to revise the project.

Earlier on the day of the public hearing, Mack filed a quitclaim deed with the county that transferred his half-ownership of the Berry Gardens property to his longtime girlfriend, Paula Renner, according to a copy of the deed included in Tompkins’ complaint.

Tompkins claimed this was an attempt by Mack to hide his personal stake in the development and constituted a violation of the Political Reform Act, which, among other regulations, requires public officials to recuse themselves from discussions in which they hold a financial interest.

In an email response to the media on Oct. 24, Mack said the timing of the quitclaim deed was coincidental and was part of “a long overdue, ongoing process of separating assets from my relationship with Ms. Renner.” Mack confirmed in his email that he still lives at the house.

“I have no financial interest or holdings on the property in which I live,” he wrote. “Neither I, nor anyone in my family, have any financial interest in the property ...”

With regard to an interest in real property, a public official must abstain only if the official has an interest in the real property at the time the decision is rendered. Mr. Mack divested himself of the real property prior to making, or influencing a governmental decision.

Letter from the Fair Political Practices Commission

In light of the pending investigation, the City Council on Oct. 13 voted 3-2, with Councilman Tim Brown and Mayor Jim Hill dissenting, to put a discussion on removing Mack from office on its agenda.

“I have my own concerns pertaining to how Commissioner Mack conducted himself throughout the Courtland hearing process, especially given that he resides in the Berry Gardens Specific Plan (area),” Councilwoman Barbara Harmon said. “There is a perception — whether that perception is fair, whether that perception is true — but there is a perception out there that there has been questionable conduct by one of our planning commissioners.”

The FPPC released a letter Oct. 20 saying it would not open an investigation into Mack because he did not own the property at the time of the Planning Commission decision:

“With regard to an interest in real property, a public official must abstain only if the official has an interest in the real property at the time the decision is rendered. Mr. Mack divested himself of the real property prior to making, or influencing a governmental decision ... Additionally, the Act requires public officials to abstain from participating in decisions that may have an effect on an official’s immediate family. An immediate family member is limited to the spouse or dependent child of an official. It does not extend to siblings, parents, or in your case, an adult child of an official. Mr. Mack did not have an economic interest in the assets held by his adult child.”

That isn’t the end of the matter, however.

Tompkins told The Tribune on Saturday that he planned to question the decision because it appears the FPPC made a mistake in its ruling, saying that the property was owned by an adult child of Mack — a father of four — not Renner.

Tompkins’ attorney Paul Ready confirmed on Wednesday that following receipt of the letter from the FPPC, he and Tompkins attempted to contact the Enforcement Division representative listed as a contact in the letter to clarify some questions with the response, but he has not yet heard back from her.

FPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga said on Wednesday that Tompkins has submitted new evidence regarding the complaint, and the FPPC is examining it to determine whether the commission will issue an update on its decision.

That process could take a few days to two weeks, he said.

Despite the original FPPC ruling — as well as a last-minute effort by several Arroyo Grande residents to persuade them to do otherwise during the public comment session at Tuesday night’s meeting — the City Council is still scheduled to consider Mack’s position on the Planning Commission when it meets Nov. 10, Arroyo Grande City Manager Dianne Thompson confirmed on Wednesday.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928,

@kaytyleslie

A Timeline of Events

Aug. 18: The Courtland project goes before the Planning Commission. The commission votes 4-0 (with one commissioner absent) to recommend against the project. Earlier in the day, Mack filed a quitclaim deed with the county, transferring his half-ownership of the Berry Gardens property to his girlfriend.

Sept. 8: The Arroyo Grande City Council votes 3-2 to approve the project.

Oct. 8: The Arroyo Grande City Council conducts another hearing regarding the Courtland project, after a courtesy notice incorrectly listed the location of the Sept. 22 meeting. The council upholds its previous decision in favor of the project.

Oct. 13: The City Council directs staff to put on a future agenda a discusion of Mack’s position on the Planning Commission after Councilwoman Barbara Harmon brings up a complaint against him during council communications.

Oct. 15: The state Fair Political Practices Commission receives a complaint from Tompkins, alleging a conflict of interest violation.

Oct. 20: The FPPC decides it will not open an investigation into Mack.

Oct. 27: The City Council takes no action to remove discussion of Mack from its November agenda, despite comment from several members of the public asking the council to reconsider.

Nov. 10: The City Council will consider Mack’s appointment, at its first meeting in November.

Correction: A previous version of this timeline incorrectly gave the date of the Courtland project’s original approval. It was Sept. 8.

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