Susan Peters

Editorial: Sacramento County supervisor should have avoided airport conflict

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 16, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 16, 2014 - 10:06 am

When you’re an elected official, you sometimes have to bend over backward to keep the public’s trust, especially when it comes to money matters.

That brings us to the case of Susan Peters, the Sacramento County supervisor whose support for taxpayer-funded projects at Mather Field have come into question because she has a financial stake in land and office buildings nearby. The state Fair Political Practices Commission said Tuesday it is reviewing the case to determine whether to start an investigation. It should do so.

The rules, themselves, are relatively clear-cut: Elected officials are presumed to have a conflict of interest if they own property within 500 feet of a public project – and thus are not supposed to take part in the decision-making.

Recently, the FPPC tweaked its rules for property outside 500 feet: Officials can still have a conflict if a decision on a public project would “change the character” of their property in a way that would affect its market value, or if the decision would cause a “reasonably prudent person” to believe it would influence the property’s value.

Because of that change, Peters now plans to recuse herself from any and all Mather issues to avoid any “grey area” decisions going forward, she told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board in an e-mail.

That’s the proper move, but she ought to have taken it sooner. And it doesn’t erase the judgments she has already made, as detailed in a Sunday Public Eye report by The Sacramento Bee’s Brad Branan.

While interpretation of the conflict-of-interest rules can get complicated, it’s awfully difficult to argue that Peters did not receive any discernible benefits from the taxpayer spending at Mather.

Sacramento County converted Mather Field, a former military base, into a complex that includes a commercial airport, business park and golf course. Peter McCuen, Peters’ late husband, founded a company that owns a major chunk of the redeveloped property at Mather.

Peters worked as the company’s treasurer but says she sold her interest in 2003, two years before becoming a supervisor. However, she still has an interest in partnerships that own 17 acres of land and two office buildings across the street from the airport.

As a supervisor, Peters has approved plans for $75 million in runways, buildings and other improvements, plus another $25 million for streets, drainage and infrastructure, including two roads that border her property. Last year, she cast the pivotal vote paving the way for Taiwan-based EVA Air to lease county property at Mather for a flight training center.

McCuen Properties uses the airport as a marketing tool to sell land. A tenant in one of the buildings in which Peters has an interest, the California Office of Emergency Services, chose the site because it uses the airport for training exercises and to respond to wildfires and other disasters.

While she maintains that any votes she took had no “foreseeable impact” on her finances, Peters recognized the potential conflicts and took some steps to avoid them. She had County Counsel John Whisenhunt review several votes, including for the flight training school and the street projects.

She did not, however, seek an advice letter from the FPPC on her case. Peters says she didn’t think it necessary after her discussions with Whisenhunt. That step, taken by other local elected officials in similar situations, would have cleared up matters and saved her some trouble.

This all comes down to common sense, or at least it should. Elected officials have to be very careful about even the appearance of a conflict. It’s their political future and personal reputation on the line, after all. Peters may learn that lesson the hard way.

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