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Bill would aid San Gabriel Valley light-rail project officials

Proposed state legislation would exempt five board members and two alternates of the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority from state conflict-of-interest laws. The officials have been accused of holding incompatible offices.

August 23, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • A passenger catches a Gold Line train at Pico/Aliso station when the $898-million extension opened in 2009. It marked the first commuter train in nearly 50 years to serve East L.A.
A passenger catches a Gold Line train at Pico/Aliso station when the $898-million… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Local legislators want to exempt officials of a San Gabriel Valley light-rail project from conflict-of-interest laws after a complaint was lodged last month with the state attorney general.

Assemblywoman Norma J. Torres (D-Chino) and five colleagues have proposed a bill that would help five board members and two alternates of the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority who have been accused of holding incompatible offices.

State law forbids public officials from serving on multiple boards, commissions, city councils and other governing bodies with interests that are likely to clash. All the board members in question are council members of cities where the Foothill Extension of the Gold Line would run.

The complaint to the attorney general was filed by Christopher Sutton, a Pasadena attorney who has sued the Gold Line on behalf of a San Gabriel Valley property owner involved in a condemnation matter. Sutton also alleges that the authority's non-voting members and some of the board alternates were improperly appointed.

Torres' bill, AB 706, would further prevent board members, alternates, consultants and employees from being prosecuted for violations of another state conflict of interest law based solely on the fact they hold office or work for the authority.

That law, government code section 1090, prohibits officials from voting for or participating in decisions involving contracts or entities in which they have a financial interest.

"The best qualified folks to sit on these types of boards are the ones who sit on local city councils," Torres said. "We can't afford for the attorney general to rule. We don't want to stall the work that is being done, postpone the jobs that are on the line or delay an important project."

If Sutton's complaint is successful, authority board members might have to be replaced. Or the attorney general could determine that the officials are not holding incompatible offices.

In one recent case, the attorney general concluded in December that former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and members of the Los Angeles County and Orange County transportation boards should not serve simultaneously on the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is overseeing the state's bullet train project.

Pringle and Los Angeles County transportation official Richard Katz are no longer on the high-speed rail board.

Sutton contends that Torres' bill could create problems for prosecutors if a Gold Line board member voted for a contract in which he or she had a financial interest.

"In my opinion, it immunizes these board members from prosecution," Sutton said. "There is a different way to do this. They should say that nothing in the bill is intended to circumvent the criminal provisions of code section 1090."

Torres disagreed, saying that Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority officials, employees and consultants would have to recuse themselves from any action involving matters in which they have a financial interest.

"The law is very narrow," Torres said. "Officials still have to abide by the state's conflict laws."

Sutton also questioned the legislative process for AB 706, which started out as a telecommunications bill and was rewritten to provide exemptions from state conflict-of-interest laws. The process is known as "gut and amend."

Sutton contends the technique is illegal because a bill must be in print for 30 days before it is considered by the Legislature. He said the authority is trying to get the measure passed before the attorney general makes any decisions on his complaint.

Torres said the process is legal and a convenient way to expedite bills. She added that the legislation must go back through the normal committee process.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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