Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray cast a City Council vote earlier this year to approve a report by a subsidiary of Willdan Group, a consulting firm that employs her as its senior vice president, city records show.
The subsidiary, Willdan Financial, has contracted with Anaheim since 1999 to calculate a special property owners’ fee in the city’s resort district, according to an email from Public Information Officer Ruth Ruiz.
A good-government expert says Murray’s vote, which came on May 17, shows a conflict of interest and a possible violation of statewide Fair Political Practices Commission regulations, which bar public officials from participating in decisions that financially benefit firms in which they have an interest.
It was a “clear financial conflict” because, had the council rejected the report, it would have been a vote of no confidence on the consultant’s work and could have led to the termination of the contract, said Tracy Westen, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.
“She [Murray] shouldn’t be voting on a report from her own company,” Westen said. “My guess is it probably does violate a local ethics standard and maybe even a statewide FPPC regulation.”
The contract for Murray’s firm is the latest in a string of revelations at Anaheim City Hall regarding contracts given to firms connected to high-level officials and employees. 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 a company’s employee, 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, which is effective in December, came after the City Council slashed his contract-signing authority from $250,000 to $100,000.
Westen called Murray’s vote the latest example of an increasingly clear pattern of inattention to potential conflicts of interest in Anaheim, and he points to an absence of important safeguards against the threat of city insiders using their authority for personal gain.
“There just doesn’t seem to be anyone worried about this,” Westen said.
City officials contend that the vote did not violate FPPC regulations because the vote only indirectly involved the company. The contract amount — up to $15,000 — was too small to have a significant financial impact on Willdan, the officials asserted.
“Any financial impact on Willdan would be immaterial, given that the maximum compensation to be paid under the contract is $15,000,” city spokeswoman Marty De Sollar wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “Thus, Council Member Murray was entitled to vote on the matter.”
Westen argues that city officials should safeguard against conflicts of interest, even on small contracts.
“If somebody buys you a Coke or something, sure, but this doesn’t strike me as being under the minimum,” Westen said. “City Council members ought to bend over backwards to make sure all of their dealings are ethical.”
Willdan Financial’s contract with the city went straight to Wood for approval last year under the city manager’s signing authority. Bob Wingenroth, who serves as the city’s finance director and the former city manager’s designated signatory, renewed it again in March, Ruiz wrote.
Murray was the only council member to oppose the call for Wood’s resignation, according to sources close to City Hall. She was also the only council member to vote against appointing Bob Wingenroth as interim city manager.
Murray’s no vote on Wingenroth’s appointment adds pressure on Wingenroth to satisfy his new boss, Westen said.
“On his left hand he [Wingenroth] has to deal with the outside contract; on the right hand he deals with the City Council,” he said. “It puts him in an awkward position.”
Robert Lavoie, general counsel for Willdan Group, which according to its website is primarily a government consultant, said Murray has no dealings with Willdan Financial. Murray provides marketing and business development services for Willdan Group, identifying project opportunities and organizing teams for project work proposals, Lavoie said.
“She might be involved in getting an officer of a company and a person from Willdan together,” Lavoie said.
When approached for comment, Murray said only that the contract never came before the council. She declined to answer additional questions, saying only that “it’s an old contract.”
Murray’s comments differ from those made by Mayor Tom Tait when it comes to conflict of interest issues. Tait, who co-owns two consulting firms, has said he wouldn’t allow the city to contract with his companies. And he often abstains on votes that deal with organizations that have done business with his firm.
“For me as mayor, it’s not OK to have a contract with the city of Anaheim,” Tait said.
Wood, Wingenroth, Tait and other council members did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment on the Willdan contract.
Westen said there are steps Murray can take to ease conflict concerns. She could declare publicly the existence of the contract and write a letter to the mayor recusing herself from any dealings with the contract.
“The alternative, terminating the contract, also has consequences. People might be laid off, businesses might be terminated,” he said.