The state attorney general has concluded that the mayor of Anaheim and members of the Los Angeles County and Orange County transportation boards may not serve simultaneously on California's High-Speed Rail Authority board.
The formal opinion, issued Wednesday, was prompted by a controversy over the multiple public hats worn by Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Los Angeles County transportation official Richard Katz.
The opinion says that serving in leadership positions at local agencies that are coordinating routes and station development for the proposed $43-billion bullet train is legally "incompatible" with an appointment to the rail board under state law. In addition, an official is deemed to have forfeited his or her first public office upon assuming a second, impermissible office, the state lawyers said.
As a practical matter, the analysis probably will have more effect on who can serve on the state rail authority board in the future than it will on Pringle and Katz.
Pringle, who chairs the rail authority board, is being termed out of office as mayor next week and also will be leaving the Orange County Transportation Authority board. Because of the potential conflicts between offices, Katz resigned from the bullet train board as of Wednesday, so he could continue to work on local transit issues. He continues to serve on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and as a board member of the Metrolink regional commuter rail service.
Pringle said in a statement that he disagreed with the attorney general's opinion, which he said was faulty and failed to properly support its conclusions. Nonetheless, he repeated a commitment not to participate in any high-speed rail meetings until he leaves the mayor's office.
Katz's attorney, Stephen J. Kaufman, said the opinion "is merely that. It is not a legal determination that Mr. Katz holds any incompatible office. That being the case, this opinion has no effect on his ability to hold any office."
Most immediately, the legal opinion could affect who will be appointed by the governor to replace Katz on the state board.
A number of critics, including state lawmakers and fellow authority board member Quentin Kopp, complained that Pringle and Katz had clashing public interests. State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, (D- Long Beach), who chairs his chamber's transportation committee, became concerned when Anaheim was negotiating a $200-million contribution from the authority to a major transit center in the city.
The attorney general's opinion "confirms that there was a clear conflict of interest," Lowenthal said. "This calls for legislation next year to deal with this issue."
Lowenthal said the legislation should toughen conflict of interest laws, require state Senate approval of high-speed rail authority nominees and make clear that the incompatible-offices law covers the authority.
Denis Fitzgerald, an Anaheim activist who lodged one of the three complaints on the issue with the state, said the matter will probably be viewed as moot.
"What's the penalty?" he said. "I am concerned about whether the attorney general will follow through. If they do nothing, it's a wrist slap."
But other local officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a representative of southeast county cities along the route, said Katz, in particular, helped resolve disputes, partly because of his transportation expertise and involvement in regional government issues.
Pringle and Katz were appointed to the state board by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Based on the attorney general's opinion, they could, at least theoretically, be deemed to have forfeited local positions at that time.
Whether that could become a legal issue in terms of Pringle's or Katz's actions on the local boards in recent years wasn't clear. Forcing an official from an "incompatible" office that they refuse to relinquish requires a court ruling, the attorney general's opinion notes. A spokesman for the attorney general said the office produced the opinion in response to a request from Lowenthal and would not comment further.
Kaufman and Anaheim City Atty. Cristina L. Talley, who represents Pringle, said the opinion would have no retroactive effect on prior official decisions involving their clients.