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Arroyo Grande planning commissioner keeps his seat after conflict-of-interest complaint

John Mack spoke before the Arroyo Grande City Council on Nov. 10, saying he had not violated state conflict of interest standards by voting on a Courtland Street development blocks away from a house he formerly owned.
John Mack spoke before the Arroyo Grande City Council on Nov. 10, saying he had not violated state conflict of interest standards by voting on a Courtland Street development blocks away from a house he formerly owned. kleslie@thetribunenews.com

John Mack will remain on the Arroyo Grande Planning Commission.

The City Council voted unanimously to keep Mack on the commission at its meeting Tuesday night, in light of the Fair Political Practices Commission’s decision that he had not violated state conflict-of-interest standards. Several members of the council, though, stressed that they were disappointed in his actions.

“Although the Fair Political Practices Commission determined that there was no conflict, it doesn’t address the fact that there indeed was questionable conduct,” Councilwoman Barbara Harmon said at the meeting. “But the FPPC is also the governing body whose ruling I will need to respect, so therefore I would like to move to not remove Mr. Mack from the Planning Commission.”

After the meeting — in which about 10 members of the public spoke in favor of keeping him on the commission — Mack was fighting back tears.

“I truly care about the people and ensuring that when they come up to the podium to talk about a project that we honestly respect their concerns, and address their concerns and implement them in the decision that we make and the advice that we carry on to the City Council,” he said. “And to see the public come out and support me like I supported them, I really appreciate them a lot. It’s all about them, it’s all about caring about the city and where we live.”

The council decision comes about a month after the allegations against Mack first arose.

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. The development is four blocks from a house that Mack formerly co-owned with his ex-girlfriend in the nearby Berry Gardens neighborhood.

I truly care about the people and ensuring that when they come up to the podium to talk about a project that we honestly respect their concerns.

Arroyo Grande Planning Commissioner John Mack

At the center of the controversy is a quitclaim deed in which Mack gave up ownership of the Berry Gardens home. It was filed with the city Aug. 18, the same day Tompkins’ development went before the Planning Commission.

The FPPC dismissed the complaint on Oct. 20, saying it would not open an investigation into the matter because Mack no longer owned the property in question and therefore wasn’t in violation of any standards.

An amended complaint was also unsuccessful. As of Tuesday, the case had officially been closed once again, and the FPPC will not open an investigation into the claim, spokesman Jay Wierenga confirmed.

Mack has held firm in the month since the allegations arose, saying there was no conflict of interest.

“I feel like it’s a modern-day lynching,” Mack told The Tribune before the council decision. “They are looking for someone to string up, and that’s not fair. I didn’t come into this trying to be dishonest or swindle anybody or do anything wrong. That’s not where I’m coming from.”

Mack has said that his home is more than 1,000 feet from Tompkins’ development property and doesn’t qualify under conflict-of-interest standards, and that he wouldn’t have any financial gain if the development were or were not approved.

He has also said his position on the Planning Commission is an advisory position, not a decision-making one, which he claims exempts him from the conflict-of-interest code.

City Attorney Heather Whitham said Wednesday that this is not the case.

“The Political Reform Act and other conflict-of-interest laws do apply to planning commissioners,” Whitham wrote in an email to The Tribune. “The Planning Commission serves both in an advisory and decision-making capacity.”

After about an hour’s worth of public comments Tuesday night, the council was clearly divided on how best to address the topic of Mack’s appointment.

I would not have done what Mr. Mack did, nor do I agree with most of what he says or does. However, that is not how we measure the extent of the services Mr. Mack has done for the city.

Arroyo Grande Councilman Tim Brown

Mayor Jim Hill and Councilman Tim Brown — both of who unsuccessfully moved at the beginning of the night to have the topic removed from the agenda — argued that the FPPC’s decision to not investigate Mack was evidence enough to keep him on the commission.

“I would not have done what Mr. Mack did, nor do I agree with most of what he says or does,” Brown said. “However, that is not how we measure the extent of the services Mr. Mack has done for the city. Unless there is a bright line between what is right and wrong, we have no business judging another human being.”

Council members Harmon, Kristen Barneich and Jim Guthrie stressed that they felt Mack had created a perception of wrongdoing by not disclosing that he had quitclaimed his home in the Berry Gardens neighborhood before participating in a Planning Commission decision on the Courtland Street development.

“There was lots of room here for Mr. Mack to either step down or to have explained why he did not step down in a more thorough manner,” Guthrie said, “but he did not.”

After a later motion by Harmon, however, the City Council voted unanimously to keep Mack on the Planning Commission.

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