Spitzer Client at the Center of Controversial Zoning Change

Supervisor Todd Spitzer at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo by: Nick Gerda)

It was a significant – and highly unusual – move by an Orange County supervisor.

In January, Supervisor Todd Spitzer successfully introduced a measure to undo the zoning approval for a controversial senior housing project that his predecessor, Bill Campbell, had passionately supported.

As he explained his reasoning, Spitzer insinuated that the original 2011 zoning change for the project, located in North Tustin, was due to the political influence of the land’s owner, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County.

“Do we have a right to represent the will of constituents, or do we represent the will of one developer who had [a] tremendous amount of political clout?” Spitzer asked during the Jan. 13 meeting where the item was ultimately approved.

But what Spitzer didn’t mention was that for the past several years he's been on the payroll of a company run by Ron King, a prominent critic of the project whose neighborhood group unsuccessfully sued the county in an effort to undo the zoning.

King’s firm, Centaurus Financial, Inc., has paid Spitzer between $10,000 and $100,000 annually as a consultant every year since he took office in Jan. 2013, as well as before he ran for supervisor, according to Spitzer’s financial disclosures.

And King was front and center at the supervisors' meeting when Spitzer convinced his colleagues to reverse the zoning approval.

“I would ask you to start the process to dismantle this arbitrary and capricious spot zoning,” King, a vice president and fundraising chair of the Foothill Communities Association, told Spitzer and the other supervisors during public comments before the vote.

Spitzer's actions in this case have drawn questions from government ethics experts and claims of conflict of interest from at least one resident.

“With these new revelations you do start to wonder, there may be an undue influence,” said Jim Cruickshank, a North Tustin resident and real estate agent who supports the project, known as The Springs at Bethsaida.

“It certainly appears to be a conflict of interest, and if that’s so, I think it should be looked into further.”

King's heavy opposition the project, Cruickshank added, has included participating in negotiations over the housing project that Spitzer mediated between the neighborhood group and the archdiocese in 2011.

Legally speaking, there probably would not be a conflict of interest as long as King and Spitzer don’t stand to gain financially from Spitzer’s actions as supervisor.

Nonetheless, the circumstances can create the appearance of a conflict, which ethics experts said Spitzer should avoid.

Tracy Westen, an expert on California government ethical issues, said Spitzer should have disclosed his financial relationship during the public proceedings on the project.

“I think that would be an appropriate place. It’s not hard to do. If somebody’s testifying in front of you and you’re being paid by him, that’s worth disclosing,” said Westen.

Another good government expert went further, saying it would be best if Spitzer avoided any participation in the issue given his income from King’s firm.

“My judgement would be that person would have been much better off recusing himself from participating in any public or private discussion” regarding the project, said James Abruzzo, co-director of the Institute of Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School.

Spitzer, meanwhile, says there’s no appearance of a conflict, given that he’s held the same position on the project’s land since before he met King five years ago.

“Fifteen years ago, I had the exact same position, and I didn’t even know who Ron King was,” Spitzer said in an interview. “The appearance [of a conflict] means that you were somehow influenced.  I’ve always held the same position.”

However, Spitzer did anticipate that his involvement in the issue could raise concerns, and said he had it analyzed by the county counsel’s office when he took office as a supervisor.

The county’s attorneys looked at where King lived and “gave me an opinion letter that it was not an issue,” Spitzer said.

As for his work for King’s firm, Spitzer said he teaches social media seminars to their financial representatives and helps retiring brokers value their practices and find buyers.  His work for the firm began in 2011, according to Spitzer.

Reached by phone, King declined an interview request.  But in an email, he said Spitzer was hired “because of his expertise in social media and succession planning.”

“Our firm’s engagement of Mr. Spitzer predates his election as Supervisor, and is not related to the North Tustin senior housing project,” King wrote.

The revelation comes amid recent questions about whether county supervisors’ outside income intersect with their public duties.

Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson are both prominent local attorneys, and each report substantial income from their law firms on state-mandated disclosure forms.

But beyond that, very little is publicly known about who their clients are, or more specifically, how their income is generated.

Westen, the good government expert, said full disclosure of income sources that might be related to policy issues is key to not damaging public trust.

“The lack of disclosure often creates more [of a] problem than the disclosure…just in public attitudes, like ‘Why are they not doing that?’ ” Westen said.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.