The Public Eye: Critics question supervisor’s votes on area where she owns land

07/12/2014 8:10 PM

07/16/2014 10:05 AM

Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters has voted for dozens of projects at Mather Field despite owning land and office space at the former air base – an arrangement that has raised questions by Mather-expansion critics about whether she has a conflict of interest.

Mather closed for military use in 1993, and the county eventually converted the 5,715-acre property into a complex that includes a commercial airport, business park and golf course. Peters has a financial stake in 17 acres of land and two large office buildings across the street from Mather Airport. Sutter Health, Xerox and the California Emergency Management Agency are tenants in her buildings on Peter A. McCuen Boulevard.

As a supervisor, she has approved plans for $75 million in improvements for runways, buildings and technology at the airport, and she has authorized $25 million in funding for streets, drainage and other infrastructure at Mather, including two streets that border her commercial property. She has supported a lease for a flight training school.

The Emergency Management Agency chose to locate at Mather in part because of the airport, which it uses to fly to disasters across the state, and Peters’ property firm uses the airport’s “superior facilities” as a selling point in promoting the land to potential buyers.

Peters said she has reviewed her potential for conflict before each vote, often consulting with county counsel. While she has abstained from some Mather votes, citing the “perception of a conflict,” she said she does not think she financially benefits from the projects she has approved.

“I think about every vote I make,” she said. “I try to be very meticulous.”

County Counsel John Whisenhunt has agreed with Peters’ justifications for her votes for a flight training school and hiring an environmental consultant to review growth plans, according to correspondence she provided. Whisenhunt did not return phone calls from The Sacramento Bee seeking comment about votes cast by Peters for airport improvements.

Peters said she was told by Whisenhunt that votes for the street projects were not a conflict because they provide a general benefit to all property owners in the area, and not a special one for her.

But Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and an expert on government ethics, said Peters appears to have a financial interest in the Mather votes she has made. Levinson reached that conclusion after The Bee provided her with a description of the votes and she consulted relevant sections of the California Political Reform Act.

“She should not have voted,” Levinson said. “She was within 500 feet and a reasonable person could conclude that she would benefit from the decision, and that is the standard.”

State law assumes that elected officials have a personal conflict when an official owns property within 500 feet of a public project unless no financial gain can be proved.

“You would have a conflict unless you could show there was not any financial effect on your property,” said Jay Wierenga, spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces the state’s Political Reform Act. “We interpreted the words ‘any financial effect’ as anything 1 cent or more.”

State law does not require local officials to take any steps to determine whether they have a conflict, although some ethics trainers advise seeking an opinion from county counsel before voting, he said.

Under a change approved in April, the commission still has a presumption of conflict when officials own property nearby, but the financial benefit has to be “measurable and recognizable” rather than the “1-cent” threshold.

Peters’ deceased husband, Peter McCuen, founded McCuen Properties, a company that owns much of the redeveloped property at Mather Commerce Center. Before becoming a supervisor in 2005, Peters worked for the company, including when the county awarded McCuen a contract to redevelop the former air base.

Peters said she left the company in 2003 but retained an interest in the office buildings and land slated for further office-park development. She declined to identify the percentage of her ownership.

During the 10 years she has been a supervisor, Peters has approved plans for Mather Field capital projects eight times. The plans allowed airport officials to start working on $75 million in large construction projects, although supervisors still had to approve the actual financing in a separate vote.

One year she was absent for the planning vote, and this year, after receiving questions from The Bee and a complaint from a resident, she abstained. She said she wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

The planning votes called for new hangars, runway lights, extensions of taxiways and runways and more at Mather. The work was necessary for the airport to meet industry standards and help pilots land in inclement weather, according to county consultant reports.

Peters said the votes were not a conflict because she approved plans, not project funding.

Peters also approved $26 million in funding from developer fees to pay for street infrastructure projects in and around Mather Field. The fee program was created in 2002 to improve Mather infrastructure before she was on the board. The fees helped pay for the improvement of Mather Boulevard, including a section next to Peters’ office buildings, and are scheduled to fund work on Peter A. McCuen Boulevard, which also runs alongside her property.

McCuen Properties uses the airport as a selling point in advertising the land it has for sale. “Mather Airport offers general aviation facilities and air cargo users superior facilities and one of the longest runways in the country,” the company’s website says.

The California Office of Emergency Services leases space in one of her buildings for part of its headquarters at Mather Field. The state office chose that location in part because of the airport, which it uses for training exercises and disasters such as wildfires, said Kelly Huston, an OES deputy director.

Last year, Peters cast the deciding vote to allow Taiwan-based EVA Air to lease county property for a flight-training facility at Mather Airport. Airline executives have said the school represents a $20 million investment that will bring 35 jobs and up to 100 students.

A county staff report recommended approval of the lease because “the flight training school will bring new aircraft and students to Mather Airport, which will in turn provide economic benefit to existing airport businesses as well as stimulate off-airport businesses.”

But Peters said she didn’t think she would economically benefit from the airline having a flight school at Mather. Peters also said that vote would not fall under the conflict rules because her property is more than 500 feet from EVA Air.

The proximity of Peters’ property to EVA Air’s flight school depends on how the measurement is conducted, and the FPPC has taken different positions on how to interpret the 500-foot rule, depending on the facts of the case. One corner of her property is about 580 feet from the closest corner of the lot occupied by EVA Air. However, the county Assessor’s Office considers the entire airport one piece of property, which would place Peters’ building well within 500 feet.

No one has filed a complaint against Peters with the Fair Political Practices Commission. But some critics of expansion at Mather have raised her votes as an issue, including John Kerhlikar of Shingle Springs, who opposes growth plans because of concerns about cargo flight noise.

“What’s good for Mather,” Kerhlikar said. “is good for her.”

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