July 22 2015 01:17 PM

Ethics Commission spat goes public

Bob Ottilie
Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

—Louis Brandeis

He is a mayor who is all smiles publicly. But the latest City Hall fracas facing Kevin Faulconer likely has evoked a private frowny face or two.

At the center of the tempest is the mayor's old pal, attorney Robert Ottilie, who by press time was among a half-dozen names put forth for four available seats on the seven-member San Diego Ethics Commission, based on memos provided by the mayor's office. (The deadline for filing nominations—which can come from city councilmembers and the City Attorney's office—is Friday.)

Any time a majority of members on a city board of this import are up for grabs, it's certain that wild stories will come a-flyin'. This, by any stretch of the imagination, is no exception.

Spin Cycle first caught wind of the controversy when it was revealed that Andrew Poat had abruptly resigned from the commission on July 1—only 18 months into his first four-year term.

"I appreciate the appointment and confirmation to the Ethics Commission made last year by the San Diego City Council—of which, you were a member at the time," Poat wrote in his resignation letter to Faulconer. "I inaugurated my term on the Commission with the full understanding that membership would limit any personal candidacy both during the term of my Commission membership— and for one year thereafter.

"Commission staff has now advised me that my membership also limits my capacity to work on behalf of a regional infrastructure funding proposal that has been a personal focus for several years. As you know, regional growth forecasts anticipate the need for 230,000 housing units and 100,000 new jobs by mid-century to sustain our regional quality of life. I believe this challenge is among the most important policy issues our region faces."

Concluded Poat: "Given this unfortunate need to prioritize between avenues of public service, I believe the infrastructure commitment to be the more important—and, therefore, resign from the Commission effective today, July 1, 2015."

Poat declined to speak publicly beyond his resignation letter, but it raises a couple of interesting issues.

First, his reference to "any personal candidacy" doesn't jibe with the waiver all new commissioners are required to sign that says, in part, "I support the City's concern regarding members of the Ethics Commission becoming engaged in political activity [emphasis added], and I therefore agree to comply with the restrictions..."

Secondly, the "regional infrastructure funding proposal" appears to be a direct reference to a looming Transnet sales-tax-hike proposal under consideration by the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency. If so, this would appear to be a county measure, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the city's Ethics Commission.

The upshot? Poat arguably could have remained a commission member while working on the sales-tax ballot measure for 2016, commission observers suggest.

But his resignation and the expired terms of three other commissioners would seem ripe for political shenanigans. And the rumors, they did come flooding out as if prompted by the recent thunderous downpours.

Local Republican Party officials, angered by greater restrictions on campaign limits and bans on vendor credits and the use of candidate videos by television-adhungry independent committees, were seeking a slate of sympathetic candidates, the whispers went.

Poat—who got in hot water last year over online comments that appeared to endorse Councilmember Lorie Zapf's candidacy—resigned as part of an orchestrated effort to lock in a more-candidate-friendly commission, the reasoning continued.

T.J. Zane, a Poway school board member and executive director of the local Republican Party, teamed up with party Chairman Tony Krvaric to revamp the commission, the rumors persisted. Zane, the theory went, is still angered by the $3,000 fine the commission levied against him and a political consultant. Investigators determined that forms filed by a committee supporting Blanca Lopez Brown in her city council race against eventual winner Myrtle Cole had neglected to note Zane's role. Zane attributed the violation to "two clerical errors," the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in April.

Zane seemed humored by the rumors. "I love a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone," he told Spin in an email, "but truth be told I have very little interest in what goes down at the San Diego Ethics Commission anymore—and I'm not even angry [regarding] the fine."

But if he's over it, his concluding sentence might give pause: "The EC exists to pursue clerical errors, and that's exactly what they tracked down after two years."

Ottilie is no stranger to commissioners, nor to the commission's tough-as-nails executive director, Stacey Fulhorst, who was quoted in a UT story last week that said she would resign if Ottilie is chosen.

"He has no regard for any type of rules, and it would be so difficult to have any type of civil discourse with Mr. Ottilie's involvement, that at least probably two commissioners would resign, as would most of the commission staff, me included," Fulhorst said, apparently during a session with the paper's editorial board, at which a reporter typically attends.

Both Fulhorst and Ottilie declined to discuss publicly the apparent animosity between the two, but former commissioner and current City Attorney candidate Gil Cabrera responded to a question from a UT editorial writer on Twitter that "we should work very hard not to politicize the Ethics Commission. Unfortunately, I think putting Bob on it would do just that."

Even a recent editorial in the conservative UT seemed to agree. Under the headline "Trio tries to monkey-wrench Ethics Commission," the paper argued that rather than "impair its normal functioning," Ottilie's nominating troika of councilmembers Scott Sherman, Marti Emerald and Myrtle Cole should "mount a campaign to win changes in the panel's operation and leadership."

Then the paper turned to the man who hates sticky wickets and argued for Ottilie's rejection—"if Kevin Faulconer wants an Ethics Commission that's not consumed by grudges and infighting."

Grudges? Infighting? Is the mayor dealing with anything else these days?

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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