The city of Santa Clarita on Friday asked the state's political watchdog commission to review whether two council members were rightfully barred from voting on a controversial hillside preservation ordinance because they have a financial stake in a bank that finances housing projects.
The Fair Political Practices Commission will issue a written opinion within two months on whether the ties that Jan Heidt and Howard (Buck) McKeon have to Valencia National Bank represent conflicts of interest, a spokeswoman for the commission said.
Meanwhile, the City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance Tuesday.
Santa Clarita City Atty. Carl Newton disqualified the two council members Wednesday, saying their links to the bank could affect their votes on the ordinance, which would strictly limit development on the city's many hillsides and ridgelines. McKeon's conflict of interest was brought to Newton's attention by a local slow-growth activist. While studying the issue, Newton discovered Heidt's connection to the bank.
McKeon is chairman of the board of the bank, and Heidt and her husband own 1,800 shares of bank stock worth $19,800. In a preliminary vote on the ordinance last month, McKeon voted against it, and Heidt for it.
Newton said Friday he asked the FPPC to review his recommendation largely because Heidt is unhappy with it. State law requires public officials to disqualify themselves if they have $1,000 or more invested in an institution that would be materially affected by their votes, Newton said. Valencia National Bank could lose $10,000 or more in loans, and thus would be materially affected by the hillside ordinance, he said.
"I do expect concurrence from the FPPC," Newton said.
Heidt, a staunch supporter of strict controls on hillside development, said Friday in a letter to the FPPC that her ties to Valencia National and to Bank of America, in which she owns $3,000 worth of stock, are extremely remote.
"I do not know where the banks loan money, I don't make loan decisions or any other decisions for those banks," the letter said. "We all read about elected officials who have spent years in office and lined their pockets ending up with great personal wealth. My husband and I have actually lost money because I am an elected official.
"It makes me wonder if having honor, integrity and honesty make any difference at all."
McKeon, who is leaving the council in April to run for Congress, said in an interview Friday that he will not contest Newton's decision.
"I just figure he knows the law," said McKeon of Newton. McKeon said, however, his role in the bank had not prevented him from voting for the city's General Plan, a state-mandated blueprint for development that is more restrictive than the Los Angeles County plan it replaced.
Carol Thorp, spokeswoman for the FPPC, said the commission can fine public officials who fail to disqualify themselves when they have conflicts of interest--even if they were unaware of those conflicts. The commission, however, generally acts on a complaint-only basis, and could decline to penalize an official if extenuating circumstances were found, she said. No one has filed a complaint against Heidt or McKeon, she said.
The FPPC has looked into the propriety of Heidt's actions once before. In April, 1990, the commission brushed aside conflict-of-interest allegations raised by a developer and said there was nothing to prevent Heidt from voting on two controversial housing projects proposed by the developer.
G.H. Palmer Associates wrote to the FPPC suggesting that Heidt might not be legally entitled to vote on the proposals because her husband had options to buy land near the proposed projects. The FPPC said the Heidt property was not close enough to the Palmer property to create a conflict.