It’s hard to hold politicians accountable for anything, especially if it involves alleged lapses in ethical judgement.
I served for over 20 years on appointed commissions in Lompoc, and every year public employees, elected officials and appointees are required to complete ethics training sessions to assure we knew what types of situations would require us to recuse ourselves from the decision-making process during public hearings.
One clear-cut requirement was that if you owned property or had a business interest within 500 feet of a business or property being discussed, you must recuse yourself.
I once had to step aside because my property line was 497 feet from a proposed public project. The reason was that if I had participated and influenced the vote, it could have theoretically benefited my family financially from my service to the community. That is a big no-no.
Five years ago, Councilman Dirk Starbuck violated this requirement; the Fair Political Practices Commission became aware of his alleged transgression and conducted an investigation. The result of that inquiry follows.
According to the Fair Political Practices Commission filings: “On February 20, 2018, the (Lompoc) City Council considered a proposed ordinance No. 1646(18) to permit commercial cannabis dispensaries in the Old Town Commercial District (OTC).
“During this discussion item, Starbuck asked why the staff was interpreting a dance studio to fall under the definition of ‘youth center’ (Cannabis dispensaries are not permitted within 600 feet of a youth center by state law).
“The city attorney advised the council that the council could make its own interpretation of youth center to exclude dance studios but cautioned that Starbuck would have to recuse himself because under a new interpretation, Starbuck’s property (in the OTC district and much less than 500 feet from the dance studio) could become eligible to be a dispensary.
“As the city council continued to discuss the dance studio issue, the City Attorney again admonished that Starbuck should leave the room. Starbuck left for part of the meeting. However, Starbuck returned to participate in the vote to advance the ordinance as proposed by staff, even though Starbuck’s property was in the area that was being regulated.”
The FPPC found that “As a member of the city council, Starbuck participated in discussions and voted on matters related to the permitting of cannabis dispensaries, in which they knew or had reason to know of a material financial effect on Starbuck’s real property,” and he was fined $8,000.
Following that decision, property values in this area immediately increased as several cannabis-related businesses sought locations. And, incidentally, the owner of the dance studio sold it, and the building is now a cannabis dispensary.
Starbuck wasn’t the only councilmember who played fast and loose with the rules during this period. Another councilman participated in the selection of an applicant to fill a vacant council seat, even though he was leasing commercial property from the applicant for whom he voted.
Considering these and other questionable actions that occurred, only one councilman has been held accountable by the FPPC, and a second by voters who rejected his bid to become mayor.
What adds to this story is the final vote on changes to the Old Town Commercial District permitting conditions. When the final vote was taken, it passed 4-1, so Starbucks’ vote didn’t matter because it would have passed anyway.
Ethics rules can be very subjective, however some, like the 500-foot rule, are specific.
I am sure many of you have questioned some decisions elected officials make and wonder why they are never held accountable unless they lose a bid for reelection or a citizen group can successfully recall them from office.
In this case, this councilman has run unopposed in the last two elections, and even in the elections where he had an opponent, he won handily without putting much effort into it.
We’ll never know why he didn’t follow the city attorney’s advice and simply step down; maybe he figured no one would notice.
Councilmember Starbuck was fined by the FPPC as an individual. The facts presented in the FPPC finding seem to show the city attorney properly notified him twice during the hearing to step down to avoid an issue.
When he stepped back to the dais and, more importantly, voted on the ordinance, he clearly accepted personal responsibility for any repercussions.
Feb 20, 2018 minutes, Item #6: https://www.cityoflompoc.com/home/showpublisheddocument/4907/636717475661970000