Almanac

News - July 7, 2010

Cargill plan: Councilwoman responds to ethics complaint

by Sandy Brundage

Redwood City council member Rosanne Foust sounds confident that a state ethics commission will rule in her favor when considering a complaint filed recently by Menlo Park council member Andy Cohen over her ties to a lobbyist organization that endorsed the Cargill Saltworks project.

"I do not believe that I have violated the rules, and trust that the [Fair Political Practices Commission] will reach the same conclusion," she said. "I am quite disappointed that he failed to inform me before he filed the complaint."

The controversy hinges on Ms. Foust's employment as chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association while also serving on the Redwood City council, which will eventually vote on whether to approve the project that SAMCEDA has already endorsed.

However, she does not sit on the SAMCEDA board, which she has said was solely responsible for the endorsement.

That cuts too fine a line for Mr. Cohen. "I live right on the railroad track, so when high-speed rail comes up I am required to recuse myself and I am not allowed to act like a councilmember to influence [a] public decision," he said, adding that he is "painfully aware" that he cannot speak about the issue when representing Menlo Park.

Mr. Cohen pointed to a 1981 "best advice letter" from the FPPC which stated, "There is an inherent appearance of conflict as well as an actual conflict when an official is being paid to promote or represent certain positions, on the one hand, and on the other, she is being called on to determine public policies and positions in the same area."

Ms. Foust has avoided other conflicts of interest. While mayor of Redwood City in 2008, she along with council members Jeff Ira and Jim Harnett recused themselves from a council vote on the Preserve of Redwood Shores project, as all three resided in that neighborhood.

"I hope the object of Mr. Cohen's complaint is not sheer disruption of the process in order to force me to recuse myself," she said. "As a fellow council member, he should both be more aware and sensitive to the often difficult positions under which councils do the public's business."

The current conflict of interest couldn't be clearer to some local environmental advocates. "If she's not doing everything in her job at SAMCEDA to get this project approved by the City Council, then SAMCEDA shouldn't pay her," said David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay, an organization that opposes the Cargill plan. "She is the voice of SAMCEDA."

Ms. Foust told The Almanac she is following the city attorney's advice and will continue to do so. However, Stanly Yamamoto left as Redwood City's attorney in January, and his replacement, Pamela Thompson, starts Aug. 4. It remains to be seen whether the incoming city attorney will agree that there is no conflict of interest.

Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said the commission should decide by July 12 whether to investigate Mr. Cohen's complaint.

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