Conflict of Interest Charges Stop Board in Tracks
by Ethan Stewart
On a day when it seemed more than likely that the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors would pass the proposed Uniform Rules changes — the ordinances that govern some 550,000 acres of privately owned local land currently under the Williamson Act contract — late-hour accusations claiming conflict of interest on the part of 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone forced the board to once again punt the controversial decision. The debate over the Uniform Rules changes — which would, among other things, allow guest ranches, one or two additional family homes, and expanded support facilities on the traditionally development-restricted, tax-sheltered Williamson Act land — has been a hot-button issue throughout the county in recent weeks. Opponents have called for more environmental review, given the fact that the county is currently considering at least 19 other ag-related policy changes, and supporters have claimed that the changes are necessary for the financial survival of family farmers.
Despite the loud pleas from the public to delay, supervisors Firestone, Joni Gray, and Joe Centeno were all prepared to vote on and pass the long-simmering ordinance changes today when the Environmental Defense Center’s Cameron Benson served the board late Monday afternoon with a 13-page letter detailing Firestone’s possible conflicts of interest and requesting that the supervisor recuse himself from the vote. A closed-door session with county counsel ensued, resulting in the decision that “For the interest of being clean and aboveboard” (as he put it), Firestone should abstain from any discussion or action on the issue, pending closer examination by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Thus, with the majority lost, supporters of the rules changes begrudgingly backpedaled on their previous “pass it now” stance and called for a nearly two-month delay until late February.
Speaking after the hearing, Firestone said that the allegations against him were “for the most part inaccurate” but admitted that “I’m not quite sure what is going to happen from here. … It seems to me that I am okay, but these are gray areas.” To Benson and the various agencies that the EDC is representing — such as the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, the Santa Barbara County Action Network, and the Gaviota Conservancy — the “gray area” lies in the fact that Firestone and his family own more than 573 acres of Williamson Act land and therefore stand, at least theoretically, to reap some sort of financial gain from the proposed rule changes. As their letter contends, “Under California law, Supervisor Firestone cannot make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.”
Specifically, it is Firestone’s winery holdings — which could be a beneficiary of the expanded support facilities clause — and the long-rumored possibility that he wishes to convert his large Victorian-style home in Santa Ynez into a guest ranch — a change that would also be allowed under a tweaked ordinance — that make Firestone, according to the letter, “have a greater economic interest in the proposed Uniform Rules changes than the [general] public,” thus mandating his recusal. However, according to Firestone — who has in the past willingly removed himself from votes related to his family’s varied business endeavors — his Victorian house isn’t even a part of his Williamson Act holdings, and even if it was, “I don’t have plans to put a guest ranch there because, well, that’s kinda where we live.” And as for the vineyard argument, he offered only that the rules changes “don’t do nearly as much for us as you might think.”
Whether the allegations are true or not, the bottom line is that this week’s late legal maneuvering not only derailed what many felt was going to be a slam-dunk approval but also buys time for what all the commotion has been about in recent weeks — the full-scale and comprehensive review of the environmental impacts associated with all the ag-related policy changes currently being worked on by various county agencies. As 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal — who has been an outspoken supporter of additional time and review — commented on Tuesday, “The issue here really is a question of process. … How can we best get there?” While it seems that time has been created, albeit somewhat unintentionally, for that process to be improved before the board revisits the Uniform Rules on February 19, it is still very much up in the air as to whether or not the board will ask for and receive such an analysis.