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Webb of Connections Part 2.

 

Maybe history can repeat itself in a good way.

 

At the end of last week’s column (Webb of Connections, Issue #241), I called for the recusal of Councilmembers Steve Webb and Linda Briskman from voting on the Montage hotel project.  

 

My column last week ended with the following question: “Can you guess which member of the City Council previously bowed to pressure to recuse himself/herself under very similar circumstances?”

 

For those of you who guessed “Steve Webb” or already knew the answer, you were correct.

 

In November of 2002, Councilmember Webb was a City Planning Commissioner, as well as a leading candidate in the City Council election scheduled for March 2003.  On November 20, 2002, the Planning Commission held a meeting to consider a controversial proposal to convert an eleven-story office building on Wilshire Boulevard into residential units.

 

On the day of the meeting, the attorney representing the local homeowners associations, Robert Silverstein, sent a letter to the City’s attorney giving notice that Mr. Silverstein would ask Commissioner Webb to recuse himself at that night’s meeting.  Mr. Silverstein’s letter (a copy of which was recently forwarded to me by a reader) cited the fact that Commissioner Webb’s  political consultant was “engaged in public relations work on behalf of the project applicant” and the fact that she was “prominently listed on Mr. Webb’s election website as one of his two Campaign Chairs”.

 

 Mr. Silverstein’s letter then made the following argument as to why Commissioner Webb should recuse himself from voting on the project:

 

“Given Commissioner Webb’s reliance on and relationship with [the political consultant]  in connection with his campaign, and [the  political consultant’s] apparent business relationship with [the applicant] in advocating for the very project that is before the Commission and Commissioner Webb, this creates an appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest, if not actual impropriety and conflict of interest.”

 

 

At the Commission’s meeting that evening, Assistant City Attorney Bob Pittman stated that he had advised Commissioner Webb that he was not required to recuse himself.  The chairperson then called on Commissioner Webb to make a statement.

 

In his statement, Commissioner Webb said that the political consultant had been a friend of his for about 25 years and stressed that she was not being paid for her role in his campaign.  He also stated that he did not believe that this friendship or her role in his campaign “would in any way affect my view of this matter.”

 

At the end of his statement, Commissioner Webb declared that he would not recuse himself.

 

When Attorney Silverstein got his chance to speak, he repeated the arguments from his letter and stressed that this was more than a mere matter of friendship.  He also reminded Commissioner Webb of the provision of his campaign platform for a code of ethics for current and retired members of the city council.

 

Later in the meeting, when the Commissioners were each explaining their conclusions, Commissioner Webb stated:

 

“Mindful of Mr. Silverstein’s comments, while I strongly disagree that any decision by me would be based on any bias, I care too much about the perception of the credibility of this Commission to allow my personal views to interfere.  I would hate to be a distraction to this process as it appears that I am.  I think it is a red herring, and so I am not going to make any comments, and I will recuse myself.”

 

In my opinion, Councilmember Webb did the right thing when he changed his mind and recused himself on November 20, 2002.  The public deserves decisions that are unaffected by any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest or bias.

 

Also, the Montage project represents a more significant decision for our community than the Wilshire Boulevard project, both in terms of impact on quality of life and because the Wilshire project did not involve an “investment” of $37.5 million of City funds.  For this reason, I believe that the need for recusal is even stronger today than in 2002.

 

I want to make it crystal clear that I am not questioning the sincerity of Councilmember Webb or anyone else.  For all I know, they sincerely believe that the Montage project will be good for Beverly Hills.

 

This is not about sincerity.  This is about not tainting an important decision by asking the public to overlook a significant conflict of interest.

 

I voted for Councilmember Webb, and might do so again if he once again changes his mind and decides to recuse himself and allows this decision to be made by the voters of Beverly Hills in a referendum which would allow both sides to present their arguments. 

 

Councilmember Tom Levyn has already recused himself from considering the Montage project.  Even if the other four Councilmembers were unanimous, the decision of two of the four, i.e. 50% of the Council, would always be questioned due to the same type of circumstances that prompted Commissioner Webb’s recusal in 2002.  

 

With the stakes so much higher this time, I am hoping that Councilmember Webb will change his mind, as he did in 2002, and that Councilmember Briskman will also take a stand in avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.  This is their opportunity to shine by recognizing the public interest in high ethical standards, and to allow the people of Beverly Hills to decide for themselves whether they want this controversial investment of public funds and property.

 

Alternatively, Councilmembers Webb and Briskman can insist that they are not biased in any material way and vote on the Montage proposal.  However, if they vote for the proposal and it passes, the appearance of impropriety will fuel a referendum that will supersede their votes, and a lot of people will never forget their decisions not to recuse themselves.

 

Next time, I am going to talk about the City’s analysis of the financial aspects of the Montage project and the decision to keep key documents and information secret from the public.  I am concerned that the City has spent taxpayer dollars to develop reports that are being kept secret from the public that paid for them.  I also suspect that people might change their minds about this project if these reports were made public.   More on this next time.

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