Citizens can now be conflict-of-interest watchdogs for Napa County government officials from the comfort of their homes, going online to find out if investments held or gifts received might be influencing county decisions.
The county Election Division recently began posting financial disclosures from county officials on its website. Previously, citizens would go to the Election Division in downtown Napa if they wanted to see the paper copies.
State-required form 700 must be submitted by elected officials such as county supervisors, appointed officials such as planning commissioners and a host of hired positions, from the county executive officer to planners.
“The purpose of the form is so the public can understand if a person who makes a decision could possibly have any financial interest in the outcome of the decision,” county Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said. “If they do or could have, they are supposed to recuse themselves from any action that might happen.”
These forms date back to the Political Reform Act passed by state voters in 1974. Government officials should perform their duties “free from biases caused by their own financial interests or the financial interests of persons who have supported them ...” the Act says.
Every now and then, a county Board of Supervisors member will leave the dais rather than vote on an item to avoid a possible conflict of interest. For example, Supervisor Diane Dillon’s form shows she has an investment in 1111 Soscol Ferry Self Storage, LLC.
At the Feb. 27, 2018 Board of Supervisors meeting, she recused herself from voting on plans to alter lane geometries and striping at nearby Soscol Ferry and Devlin roads.
Dillon’s husband runs WJM Real Estate in St. Helena. Supervisor Ryan Gregory is an owner of KG Planning Partners. Supervisor Belia Ramos has a business called Raise the Bar LLC to provide writing tutorials for California Bar exam applicants, according to the forms.
By requiring the disclosure of such information on 700 forms, the Political Reform Act helps the public blow the whistle on public officials who don’t follow the rules.
“Much of the enforcement of the Act’s conflict-of-interest provisions is based on citizen complaints,” said a report by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
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The forms also list gifts reported by supervisors and others filers. The Fair Political Practices Commission advises that a conflict of interest may exist if an official receives gifts from a person or business totaling $500 or more within a year.
Among other things, Ramos’s list includes a $100 Rutherford Dust Society annual dinner, a $375 Mentis dinner, a $125 Ole Health dinner from Truchard winery, Cabernet Cookoff fundraiser tickets valued at $200 from Hall Winery, a $100 Harvest Celebration value from Kathryn and Craig Hall and $170 for the Napa County Farm Bureau Golf Tournament from Ramos Vineyards.
Dillon’s list includes a $75 holiday lunch and wine from Kathryn Hall, a $250 Boys and Girls Club dinner from Corey Beck, $330 in wine and olive oil from former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy, a $100 Napa Valley Grapegrowers annual dinner and $450 R.M. Williams boots from South Australia, where she went for Great Wine Capitals conference.
Gregory’s list includes a $100 Napa Valley Grapegrowers annual dinner, a $75 Winegrowers of Napa County annual lunch and $250 for a golf benefit for farmerworkers housing from winery owner Michael Swanton.
Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza’s list includes a $70 Winegrowers of Napa County luncheon, $250 in wine from Caymus Vineyards, $150 in tickets from Safeway Open PGA, a harvest dinner valued at $120 from Craig and Kathryn Hall, $150 in wine from Pestoni Family Estates and a $100 Napa Valley Grapegrowers annual dinner.
Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht’s list has one item – $75 from Sloan, Sakai, Yeung & Wong for a California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions conference dinner.
Far more county officials than supervisors must file the forms. People can go online to see the financial interests reported by County Executive Officer Minh Tran, Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison and dozens of other county employees.
Tuteur said people haven’t come to the Election Division very often to see the forms. The forms hadn’t previously been online because the Election Division would have had to redact personal information manually, which would take a lot of staff time. Now new software does the job, he said.
There’s more to come. Tuteur said the Election Division will begin making candidate fundraising information for county offices available online for the March 2020 election.
The Board of Supervisors on Feb. 26 approved a $20,000 agreement with Southtech Systems Inc. through June 30, 2020 for the e-filing system. Not only can the public see the 700 forms and campaign reports online, but officials can file them online.