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Mayor Should Put City First

November 10, 2002

Laguna Beach's mayor is in very hot water over a politically thoughtless action, having been indicted for a business role that smacks more of pigheadedness and small-town thinking than of criminal intent.

When the city paid $1.8 million for two parcels near downtown early in 2001, the site of a planned senior center, Wayne Baglin acted as the real estate agent representing the sellers. Baglin, a councilman at the time of the deal but now the Laguna Beach mayor, made $36,000 in commissions, his lawyer says.

The Orange County Grand Jury indicted Baglin for conflict of interest under the California Government Code section that says, "City officials or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members."

In fairness, Baglin's conflict of interest on this deal wasn't in the same ballpark as that of Dave Garofalo, the former Huntington Beach councilman who repeatedly voted on issues involving companies that had bought advertising from his publishing business. Garofalo was fined, sentenced to community service and banned from public service.

In contrast, Baglin, a longtime friend of the sellers, properly disclosed his role and abstained from voting on the sale.

The abstention takes care of the first part--he didn't act in his official capacity on the council because he didn't vote. But he still was a member of the council. He knew he would face legal questions on this issue. The city attorney drew him aside for a discussion of the matter. Yet Baglin went ahead.

On top of that, his lawyer rashly asserts that Baglin could have sought a commission from the city as well as the buyers. If Baglin's lawyer cannot see the problem with that advice, the mayor might need new legal counsel.

Although public officials would have a hard time avoiding all potential conflicts of interest, this isn't a case of a councilman owning stock in a company that happened to have business before the council. Baglin's attorney points out that the mayor is allowed to make a living by selling real estate, as he has for years. But if Baglin cannot find sellers and buyers to represent without thrusting himself into a moneymaking role on a major city deal, perhaps he should rethink whether public service is right for him.

Council members by definition have extraordinary contacts within the city. Whether they abstain from votes or not, their City Hall connections can gain them favorable business advantages.

It's also unseemly for council members to be in a business position where their success--such as a higher price for the property--means the taxpayers must shell out that much more money.

At worst, Baglin may have committed a felony, as prosecutors accuse him of doing. At best, he committed a foolish political act that calls into question his ability to lead.

For all its small size, Laguna Beach continually grapples with such major issues as coastal preservation and sewage spills. It needs smart leaders who put its interests first, all the time.

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