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.

  • buzzookaman

    Very well said, thank you. What are your thoughts on the “Grand Theft Park” debacle

  • Richard Nelson

    Les Nesbitt,a resident of North Tustin, asked me to post the following for him.

    On May 6, 2015, at 12:29 AM, Leslie wrote:

    By Nick Gerda May 5, 2015 at 9:05 AM

    “It was a significant – and highly
    unusual – move by an Orange County supervisor.” — Nick Gerda

    Mr. Gerda:

    The significant – and highly unusual – move by
    an Orange County supervisor occurred when our former 3rd District supervisor, Bill Campbell, stood before the community turn-out at the Church of the Foothills and told that very large gathering of residents who were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed ‘spot-zoning’ asked for by the Catholic church to build a huge commercial money producing business in the heart of our single family neighborhood, that he, Bill Campbell was not going to honor the wishes of his constituents, but would vote for the commercial proposal by his Church, the Catholic Diosese of Orange County. In addition he said that this neighborhood would in years to come, see and appreciate the wisdom of his action NOT to represent his constituents. This neighborhood would not have opposed a neighborhood Catholic Church, or a Catholic school, as intended by the original donors, the Prescott family, who gave the property for a neighborhood Church or parochial school. There are many commercial establishments involved in the very lucrative care of the elderly, and commercialization of our single family bedroom community will always be opposed to “special spot zoning”.

    Supervisor Spitzer is and always has been a politician who listens to and supports his constituents, and this is why he gets re-elected. His intelligent and thoughtful response to his constituents does not go un-noticed.

    Les Nesbitt, FCA board member

  • Mike Tardif

    It’s a well planned attractive senior living facility – not a Vegas casino.

    • Rivett

      A truly well planned project wouldn’t be inconsistent with the North Tustin Specific Plan.

      If the Diocese wanted to build something compatible with the Specific Plan, they could. They have proposed no such thing.

      I believe a deal was crafted where the Diocese could swap the North Tustin property for property in Irvine where they could build their facility. They chose not to.

  • Trudy White

    Don’t forget his wife’s income from her being in charge of the Anaheim Workers Compensation court. Boggles the mind, not just money, but the potential for abuse.

  • Trudy White

    There’s much more than that list, and the FBI is totally aware. They said that if the amount is not over ten million, they don’t care. Don’t believe that these people are not aware of what that limit is.

  • David Zenger

    The comments here seem to be addressing two different things that can easily be mutually exclusive.

    First is the decision, itself. There is no doubt that the original plan was spot zoning and that Bill “Give Away Everything Not Nailed Down” Campbell rammed a “spot zoning” through his pawns at Public Works.

    However, this doesn’t absolve Spitzer of his ethical entanglement in what appears to be some sort of joke “expertise” in the completely unrelated areas social media and succession planning.

    Of course Todd is welcome to share his wealth of experience in these areas, although I doubt that preening for the cameras qualifies as expertise.

  • skywalker

    Thank you, Supervisor Spitzer, for listening to the vast majority of North Tustin residents! The high-density Kisco/Orange Diocese project should never have been approved – it would have been a monolithic building surrounded by single family homes. The project meets every definition of spot zoning.

  • Richard Nelson

    This article is off target. The real issue in Supervisor Spitzer’s action to roll back a prior board’s approval is his unwavering consistency in representing his constituents. The zoning law in North Tustin (North Tustin Specific Plan, NTSP) is clear that there is to be and only medium-low density housing and no commercial development north of 17th Street. During Supervisor Spitzer’s first tenure as Supervisor (1997 to 2002), a senior living facility was proposed south of 17th Street. His position was to approve it because it was south of 17th Street, provided that the plans were scaled back substantially to make the facility more compatible with adjacent residences. The plans were scaled back per his recommendations and the facility was approved. Also during this tenure, several commercial developments were proposed north of 17th Street and Spitzer said he would never vote for any commercial development north of 17th Street. In a public hearing, over 1,000 residents voiced overwhelming opposition to an upscale development. Spitzer was consistent and successfully opposed all projects in conflict with the NTSP.

    In campaigning for his current position as Supervisor, he was adamant in many public speeches and in an open letter to the public about his opposition to anything other than low to medium residential housing north
    of 17th St.

    After being elected to his current period as Supervisor, he was very vocal in many meetings in North Tustin about his opposition to developments that were in conflict with the North Tustin Specific Plan. Many of us who live in North Tustin are grateful that when he was able he acted in concert with his long-standing public position and opposed the development.

    With regard to Todd Spitzer being hired by Mr. King, a local resident who opposed the project, the local residents are opposed to the Springs at Bethsaida project. Does that mean that almost no one in North Tustin
    could hire Todd Spitzer for consulting services?

    Mr. King does not live near the property and is personally not affected by the project. He has been an active member of the Foothill Communities Association (FCA) for many years. One of FCA’s major objectives is to protect zoning in North Tustin. Mr. King’s opposition to the project is simply
    supportive of the organization and the position of residents.

    As the article makes clear, Supervisor Spitzer has no conflict of interest in his opposition. It appears to this commenter that people and organizations with an interest will denigrate the Supervisor in hopes of resurrecting the project.

    Rick Nelson
    President, Foothill Communities Association

    • Trudy White

      So Spitzer is consistent in his NIMBY opposition to affordable housing for seniors and the disabled in the County, including veterans rendered homeless by the outrageous overpricing of apartments and houses in the County. Got it. Thanks for clearing that up. I imagine that is probably why the board does NOTHING about the scandalous misconduct at the Housing Authority, which has set back wait lists by two years. Consistency in elitism is important, for politics as usual to keep chugging along.

  • Spitzer Lies

    This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how corrupt Spitzer is. Not only is Ron King paying Spitzer for some phony consulting gig in return for some favors, King also installed Spitzer as chairman of Strategic Realty Trust after leading a proxy fight, giving Spitzer another generous source of income in return for repealing the senior residential project approval to satisfy a select few anti catholic bigots of North Tustin. Shame on him

    • Concerned Citizen

      A few anti catholic bigots? Completely incorrect statement: 98% of the properties near the project are opposed to the facility, this includes a number of Catholic parishioners. Over 2500 people signed petitions against the spot zoning of this project, I wonder how many of those are Catholic?

      • Rivett

        Many local critics of this spot-zoning travesty are Catholic including my family. My parents also live in the area, dad was a member of the bishop’s lay advisory board, and they are both in their 80s, and their opposition is clearly neither anti-Catholic nor anti retiree.

        I don’t know Supervisor Spitzer personally, but he is well known around here since his first stint as Supervisor. Anyone with a memory can tell you that he isn’t a high-profile opponent of commercial development here because he knows or does business with someone in North Tustin, it’s almost certainly the other way around.

  • astar2b

    Comments Attorney/ BOS Spitzer ?

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    Meanwhile back at the ranch, I know county people who refuse to accept holiday candy, pay for their coffee and split meal fees to ensure they avoid ANY appearance of a conflict of interest. If they can figure out where the “orange line” begins and ends – how can it be so very difficult for Attorney/ BOS Spitzer to make this determination? Answer: It’s not. I don’t know if this situation influenced Spitzer but I do know that money talks and well the rest walks. Oh and as the population ages – we do need more senior living options. Desperately.

  • Concerned Citizen

    What about Bill Campbell’s conflict of interest in regards to his position with the Catholic Diocese in the first place? This project should have never been rammed through the board, this was Campbell’s pet project to leave the board on. The previous supervisors cited “District Prerogative” when they voted to approve the land use designation. This “District Prerogative” kept the supervisors for voting against Campbell’s project for fear that he wouldn’t support projects in their own districts. Supervisor Spitzer has always supported property owners and the overwhelming majority of the constituents do not want this project built in keeping with the guidelines of the North Tustin Specific Plan. Go about it the right way and get the community leaders together and change the plan. Government leaders should respect the majority of the public’s opinions/wishes/desires, it’s called democracy.

    • Spitzer Lies

      “Overwhelming majority of the constituents do not want this project built..”” YEAH RIGHT! By FCA’s own admission, there are approximately 25,000 residents in the North Tustin area, yet fewer than 2,500 are members of FCA, and only 2,800 were opposed to the development- only 11% of the area residents!!! That isn’t an “overwhelming majority.” That is called the tyranny of the NIMBY few!!

      • Rivett

        That is about as credible as the “anti Catholic bigots” story you made up.

  • Linda May

    Where was this investigation when Bill Campbell was handing out favors to his developer cronies like candy at Christmas. I know there may be an appearance of conflict of interest, but isn’t a part of that question about “for personal gain”? Who gains from restoration of a specific plan and the general plan? We, the public, do! Seriously! Someone needs to take a look at all the personal connections, conflicts of interest, and questions of ethics Bill Campbell had as he shredded specific plans throughout his district and the General Plan as well. Who benefited from those decisions and how is Bill Campbell connected to them?