Not to put too fine a point on it, but yesterday’s Voice of OC story on Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray was, in my opinion, an example of smoke in search of a fire.

The VOC Twitter headlines unambiguously declare Murray has a conflict of interest:

“Government expert on latest Anaheim conflict of interest …”

“Another Conflict in Anaheim.”

The article claims a vote Murray cast at the May 17 Anaheim Council meeting is a conflict of interest because the engineer’s report in the agenda item materials was prepared by Willdan Financial, a subsidiary of Willdan Group, which is Murray’s employer.

Now, it’s important to understand that a conflict of interest is defined in the law. Something is either a conflict, according to the law, or it isn’t.

As the above headlines demonstrate, the VOC is telling readers that Murray violated conflict of interest laws, when an examination of the facts, in context, shows otherwise.

The average reader of this story would conclude the agenda item clearly and umistakably concerned Willdan Financial and that Murray knowingly, deliberately voted on it. Here is where lack of context produces a false narrative.

The vote in question was the 17th item on a 28-item consent calendar. Item 17 read:

Resolution No. ____ A resolution of the City Council of the City of Anaheim initiating proceedings for the annual levy of assessments in, and accepting an assessment engineer’s report for, Anaheim Resort Maintenance District.

The item consisted of a staff report (ASR in the parlance of local government), two resolutions and an engineer’s report. Nowhere in the ASR or the two resolutions is there any mention of Willdan — just some references to the “Assessment Engineer’s Report.” The final attachment is the six-page report from Willdan Financial.

Tracy Westen of the Center for Government Studies histrionically contends that if the council had “rejected the report, it would have been a vote of confidence on the consultant’s work and could have led to the termination of the contract.” This overwrought judgment leads me to wonder if Westen had even seen the report upon which he was commenting. If so, he would have seen it is hardly more than a brief statement of facts, such as a budget summary and what the boundaries of the assessment district are. It hardly lives up to Westen’s overheated rhetoric about the dire consequences of rejecting the report, when there was absolutely no chance of that happening.

The item itself is a routine one. Resort District property owners voted in 1999 to levy an assessment on themselves to pay for the upkeep of the area, and it has been renewed as a matter of course ever since. Council approval of the engineer’s report is basically a legal box to be checked in order to renew the assessment district.

When I asked Councilwoman Murray about this, she said she simply did not see the assessment engineer’s report. I have the advantage of knowing Kris Murray, and I know her to be meticulous and superscrupulous when it comes to matters such as these. If she had been aware the engineer’s report had been conducted by a Willdan subsidiary, I’ve no doubt she’d have abstained — even in the absence of a legal or ethical conflict of interest.

Frankly, I think Murray can be forgiven for not seeing an engineer’s report attached to a routine consent item buried among nearly thirty other consent calendar items.

What is difficult to overlook is the article’s reckless exaggeration of the matter and sensationalistically asserting a conflict of interest where none exists. It is irresponsible to accuse Murray of violating the law and cast doubt on her integrity and ethics when a full and honest reading of the facts and circumstances points to the opposite conclusion.

The article’s heavy breathing aside, where is the real, actual conflict? Where is the evidence that Murray’s vote constitutes a financial benefit to either her or Willdan?

If the vote was on whether to award a contract to Willdan Financial, the VOC would have a point. But as the article notes, the city’s contract with Willdan Financial has been in place since 1999. Murray has never voted on it. Adopting a routine statement of facts prepared by Willdan Financial — for which Murray does not work — as part of a long-standing agreement hardly constitutes a conflict.

The article not only fails to provide readers with a genuine context but links the vote to two other issues — the Fazekas and Charles Abbott Associates contracts — with which it has no connection. It misleads readers into wrongly assuming the item in question was about Willdan, and that Councilwoman Murray knowingly voted on it as such. It recklessly attempts to link former City Manager Tom Wood’s renewal of the Willdan Financial contract last year with Murray’s last-month vote against firing Wood — without a shred of evidence to make such a linkage.

Conflict of interest is a pretty serious charge to level against a public official. Even the suggestion of it unavoidably tars the targeted official’s reputation, and the stain is difficult to remove. To excitedly and wrongly make such a claim against Councilwoman Murray is especially egregious given her actual history of scrupulous observance of the law throughout her public career.

Properly understood, the circumstance of the vote in question makes this a nonstory. Unfortunately for Councilwoman Murray’s reputation and the public’s ability to gain an accurate picture of the matter, the VOC went the cheap, easy and sensationalistic route.

Matthew Cunningham is a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board and also a public affairs consultant who has been involved in Orange County politics and government for more than 20 years.

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