Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On avoiding conflicts of interest at the Water District

I've made clear during and after the campaign that I intended to avoid conflicts of interest between my day job as an environmental advocate for Committee for Green Foothills and my service on the Water District Board. Today the Mercury News wrote about the issue:

In March, members of the water district board were discussing at a public meeting whether to shift money for environmental restoration of streams to flood control work. Schmidt openly asked if he might have a conflict.

He asked water district counsel Stan Yamamoto for a ruling. He met afterward with Yamamoto's staff. The lawyers issued a memo spelling out when Schmidt should recuse himself from voting.

"Before I even started the campaign last year, I said I wanted to avoid any conflicts between my job as an environmental advocate and the work the water district does," Schmidt said Monday.

Yamamoto declined to be interviewed.

Asked to make the memo public, Schmidt said he could not, because he isn't the client in the attorney-client relationship, the water district is. Instead, he said, he has asked the state Fair Political Practices Commission for a ruling. He declined to comment on whether he supports making the memo public.

That's the core information in the article, although I think there was some sensationalizing of it. My main complaint is that I gave the reporter a reason why I shouldn't publicly declare whether the memo should be public, which wasn't included in the article: because the memo's about me, I shouldn't be involved in the process of deciding whether it should be released, and that includes publicly lobbying the Water District to release it (or not).

Second complaint is that no one ever releases attorney-client communication (for the reason that it would impair frank communication), and the article declined to mention that. I told the reporter that I considered that an essential part of the information that the public doesn't know, but he didn't. I should note that the Water District hasn't (so far anyway) decided to release the memo, but it's up to them. I did make clear to the reporter that as a general matter I oppose releasing attorney-client communication, but there could be specific exceptions, and I wouldn't weigh in on whether this memo was one of them.

It's somewhat ironic that we were in disagreement over what the newspaper is withholding from the public.

One additional thing the article brings that I do think is fair is that to the extent I have a conflict that keeps me from voting, I can't weigh in on issues on behalf of my constituents. On the other hand, it's the same experience at my day job that gives me relevant knowledge for the job. Overall, I think I'll need to recuse myself between one and three times this year, and fewer times in subsequent years. I noted this during the campaign as well and felt that it wasn't so broad a problem as to keep me from doing the work, and nothing's changed my mind since then.