Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait has drawn fire for serving on the Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors while his engineering firm is a contractor for the agency.

A special countywide selection committee, on which Tait serves, voted to appoint him to the Transportation Authority’s board last November. The decision triggered political backlash from his critics, who pointed out that the Transportation Authority’s $330,144 contract with Tait Environmental Services for work on underground storage tanks presents a conflict of interest.

Tait’s position on the Transportation Authority board comes at a crucial time for Anaheim, because it would be a major funder of the city’s proposed streetcar system, which would connect the Disneyland Resort to a prominent train depot and other key destinations.

He joins a vocal minority on the board — which also includes county supervisors Todd Spitzer and John Moorlach and Irvine City Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway — that has raised questions about the streetcar project and its $319-million price tag.

Anaheim Councilwoman Gail Eastman, the city’s previous appointment to the Transportation Authority board, is an unquestioning supporter of the streetcar project, which has the strong backing of Anaheim’s well-heeled business community.

Tait, meanwhile, has said he will support the streetcar only if his questions regarding the project are answered to his satisfaction: “I’ve had a couple questions that I’ve wanted answered on that, and I think we’ve had general disagreement on proper use of taxpayers money.”

Yet Tait’s membership on the board represents a degree of hypocrisy when it comes to conflict of interest issues, asserted his opponents, who are largely members of the city’s business elite and supporters of the current Anaheim council majority.

As a member of the City Council, Tait sometimes abstains from votes that have to do with the Transportation Authority because of his firm’s contract. This leads his opponents to question how he can at once acknowledge that he has a conflict with the Transportation Authority while serving on its board and even join in a vote to appoint himself to the board.

“If Tait himself states it is a conflict of interest for him to vote on an amendment to an agreement with OCTA that doesn’t remotely impact his company or his contract, then wasn’t it a conflict for him to vote to put himself on the OCTA Board of Directors? Or to vote on that seat at all?” Wrote a blogger with the pseudonym “Anaheim Insider” at the Anaheim Blog, which regularly opposes Tait and supports the City Council majority.

Providing an answer to that question is proving to be a challenge for experts on conflict of interest.

Generally, it is illegal under the state’s Political Reform Act for elected officials to cast votes that could financially affect sources of income. Government Code Section 1090 makes it a criminal conflict of interest for boards to approve contracts in which a board member has a financial interest.

OCTA General Counsel Ken Smart gave Tait the OK to serve on the board, because, according to Smart, the law doesn’t apply to board members who were appointed after their contract with the agency was awarded.

Furthermore, as long as he abstains from voting on matters involving his contract, there probably is no conflict of interest, legal or ethical, said Bob Stern, a statewide good-government expert who helped craft California’s political reform act.

“As long as he’s not voting on anything affecting the contract I think it’s probably fine,” Stern said.

Yet such qualified endorsements do little to clarify the situation for Tait, especially given the highly charged political atmosphere he operates in. He acknowledges being confused by of the advice he’s received from Anaheim City Attorney Michael Houston regarding which Anaheim council votes on OCTA issues to abstain from.

“It seems very strange to me,” Tait said. “I just follow the advice of the city attorney.”

Houston refused to discuss the matter, saying he is prevented by attorney-client privilege.

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