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The San Juan Capistrano City Council shot down a proposal to oust Planning Commissioner Rob Williams, despite concerns that he at least appears to have a conflict of interest in voting on a downtown hotel project.
The dispute revolves around the proposed Hotel Capistrano, which would be built on land owned by Hollywood producer and writer Steve Oedekerk. Oedekerk has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) alleging that Williams’ ties to a competing hotel’s owner and development manager should disqualify Williams from voting on Oedekerk’s project.
Williams has acknowledged a business relationship with Dan Friess, the development manager of the Mission Inn Hotel, owned by Bill Griffith. Williams is also a member of a group that filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping Oedekerk’s previous hotel project on the same site, and he has taken campaign contributions from Griffith and his family members.
Williams has recused himself from planning commission discussions on the Mission Inn Hotel, but insists on voting on the Hotel Capistrano.
The FPPC had previously cleared Williams to vote, but Oedekerk’s complaint alleged that Williams had left out a number of pertinent facts in obtaining the watchdog agency’s OK. The commission was going to fine Williams $400 for a separate violation related to his failure to properly disclose his San Clemente-based architectural firm, but the FPPC delayed approving the fine so it could investigate the new allegations.
Williams says there is no conflict and that he can objectively consider Oedekerk’s hotel, despite his financial interests and opposition to Oedekerk’s past project. He says Oedekerk’s new project so far looks like a much better proposal.
Oedekerk contends in his new complaint that Friess and Griffith have deep business connections, and that Williams could benefit them by using his planning commission seat to influence the Historic Town Center Master Plan.
At the very least, Oedekerk argues Williams should recuse himself over the perception of a conflict.
Councilman Derek Reeve agrees and had proposed removing Williams from the planning commission because Williams refuses to recuse himself from votes on Oedekerk’s hotel project and the Historic Town Center Master Plan.
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Reeve insisted repeatedly that the perception of a conflict left the city more vulnerable to a lawsuit.
“The appearance there is blatant, it’s obvious.” Reeve said. “The appearance of impropriety is as dangerous as impropriety itself.”
Councilman Sam Allevato backed Reeve on the vote. But the other council members – including John Perry, Kerry Ferguson and Mayor Pam Patterson – opposed removing Williams. Instead, they decided to table the issue and possibly revisit it once the FPPC has concluded its investigation.
Ferguson motioned to table the matter, asking that “we wait until someone is proven guilty before we do anymore.”