Councilwoman Pressured Staff on Behalf of Her Firm

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Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray this year pressed city officials to approve an event permit for her company, Willdan Group, after it appeared the city would not issue the permit in time for a company barbeque, according to emails obtained by Voice of OC.

Murray, who holds the position of senior vice president at Willdan, sent an email on April 5 from her company email address to Fire Chief Randy Bruegman complaining that the permit request had been denied. She asked to speak to the city staffer who was handling the request, the email shows.

Murray sent another email the next day complaining that the process was overly demanding. The permit was ultimately approved after Murray’s contact with Bruegman, according to the emails, which were obtained by Voice of OC under the California Public Records Act.

“This is seeming very onerous for an open tent permit in a private parking structure,” Murray wrote to Bruegman. “This is an employee BBQ for a couple of hours. I don’t get it?”

A good-government expert says Murray’s intervention on behalf of her company presents a conflict of interest issue that the city needs to address.

“I think the city ought to think about these issues, because they will inevitably arise again and again whenever you have city council members with outside companies that have interests in the city,” said Tracy Westen, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

Murray refused to be interviewed about the situation but wrote in an email to Voice of OC stating she was only seeking information.

“I was merely asking the Chief for information about the process, and specifically did not ask for his assistance to resolve the matter. The department did not take any steps to intervene in this matter on behalf of my company – it was ultimately a miscommunication between the private events company that was handling the matter,” Murray wrote.

Westen says there are better ways for Murray to have handled the situation. He says she could have asked another Willdan official to be the contact for the city. “There should be a way to raise the issue without presenting a clear conflict of interest,” Westen said.

Last month, Voice of OC revealed that Murray voted to approve a report submitted by Willdan Financial, a subsidiary of Willdan. Westen said that the vote was a clear financial conflict of interest.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and other members of City Council did not return calls seeking comment.

Murray’s actions are the latest examples of a string of conflict issues at Anaheim City Hall. Scott Fazekas, head of the city’s building division, resigned in October after a Voice of OC story revealed that his firm, Scott Fazekas & Assocates, received thousands of dollars in plan review work. Richard Brooks, an assistant under Fazekas, also resigned.

Prior to Fazekas, the plan review firm Charles Abbott Associates received the vast majority of Anaheim’s outsourced plan check work while one of its  employees, Steve Ahuna, was the city building division’s plan review supervisor, according to city invoices.

These revelations played a role in the City Council’s decision earlier this month to ask former City Manager Thomas Wood to resign, according to City Hall insiders. Wood’s resignation came after the City Council slashed his contract-signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000.

Willdan officials wanted to throw an open-tent barbeque April 12 on the roof of a parking structure at Willdan’s corporate headquarters on Katella Avenue, according to the emails. City officials wanted structural engineering data to make sure the parking structure could hold the weight of the attendees before issuing the permit, the messages state.

After Murray intervened, Fire Marshal Jeff Lutz asked Fazekas — who was head of the building division at the time — to weigh in on the request, the emails show. Fazekas advised in an email that according to data provided by Willdan, the structure would be able to hold the weight.

Sources inside City Hall say that there are other examples of council members using their influence at the city to grant building permits and other special requests to politically connected firms and individuals. After a council member intervenes, sources say, the request is outsourced to a private contractor like Fazekas to push it through.

Regarding the Willdan barbeque, Lutz said in an interview that he had asked for an engineering report that was easy to produce and denied that the city was being overly demanding. He said that he ignored the fact that the permit was for a councilwoman’s firm.

“It was never our intention to deny the permit,” Lutz said. “Ultimately it’s my job to make sure people are safe, and we’re not going to issue a permit if it’s not safe, regardless if that person represents a company or a city leader.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

 

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