Local leaders across California have passed the deadline to disclose any conflicts of interest they have under state laws that require them to publicly report any potential conflicts once a year. 

But just how much do public officials have to disclose? 

In some cases, city council members in Orange County say they have no conflicts to show, submitting blank disclosure forms for public review. 

Under state election laws, every elected leader in each city is required to file a disclosure statement called a Form 700, which lists any investments, businesses, property, salary or gifts they benefited from over the last year. 

For elected leaders there’s a strict series of rules on what has to be disclosed, which is enforced by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, but there’s still a lot the public doesn’t get to see. 

To review the FPPC’s list of regulations, click here

Most city council members have another source of income since their council positions don’t generate a lot of money.

But they only have to disclose where that money is coming from if it’s generated in the city they live in, according to FPPC officials.  

“If someone is making a living (which is not against the law) in one city their income comes from that business, which is not in the city where her/his/their decisions and votes would affect things in THAT city, which could then be a conflict,” said commission spokesperson Jay Wierenga in a statement.

And some cities, like La Habra, don’t post the city council income disclosures online.

Anyone who receives a government salary also doesn’t have to disclose where they get their paycheck from, including teachers, county employees, law enforcement and others. 

But he also added that there’s no limit on how much council members can disclose if they choose to. 

“As far as revealing any and all income publicly, ask the legislature to change the law, they make the law. Any public official can release all their finances if they want,” Wierenga said. “But the Political Reform Act is designed to make sure public officials aren’t making decisions (in their jurisdiction) that would affect their material, financial interests.”

Donations directly to candidates and city council members’ campaigns are disclosed in separate filings, but both are essential according to Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente, policy director for Chispa, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit focused on getting people active in politics. 

“They serve as a really good way to support transparency in local government, and on our end it helps us identify potential conflicts of interest,” Vicente said in an interview. “We’re seeing if these people prioritize their constituents or special interests.”

Vicente pointed to former Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who was investigated and fined multiple times for failing to properly disclose campaign contributions and conflicts of interest.  

[Read: State Watchdog to Fine Pulido $13,000 Over Property Swap]

“He would withhold information, but also, he would mis-declare some of his assets and financial interests,” Vicente said. “We’ve seen officials across Orange County do this.” 

Throughout Orange County, the total amount disclosed by each council member can also vary widely based on how much they choose to disclose. 

Huntington Beach City Councilman Pat Burns disclosed his pension from his career as a police officer in Long Beach, along with his IRA accounts and house. 

Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland’s disclosure was 14 pages long, and disclosed a variety of business and investment interests, along with his home in Huntington Beach and a second address in Moorpark. 

Mayor Tony Strickland of Huntington Beach during the Jan. 17 council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Strickland’s Huntington Beach address ended up landing him in some controversy, when it came out that he was living in a home with an affordable housing covenant while he campaigned against new affordable housing in the city. 

[Read: Fighting California’s Housing Goals While Living in Affordable Housing]

But HB Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark has submitted blank forms over the past three years according to public records, marking that she had “no reportable interests,” despite campaigning repeatedly on being a small business owner along with her husband. 

When asked about the issue, Van Der Mark said she was no longer involved with her husband’s property management business and that her “full time job,” was to be on city council, adding that the family business did not work in the City of Huntington Beach. 

“As long as it’s not in HB we don’t have to disclose and the only reason we won’t do that is because we’ve been targeted so much that in order to protect our family, and business, we just keep it private,” Van Der Mark said in an interview. “What matters is that it’s not here in HB.”   

Buena Park Councilman Jose Trinidad Castaneda had a similar response when asked about why he submitted a blank disclosure form. 

“I’m not trying to hide anything,” Castaneda said. “You only have to disclose your sources of income within the jurisdictions of those agencies that require the 700.” 

Cities can enact stricter disclosure laws, like reporting entertainment trips.

For example, under Anaheim’s disclosure policy, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Councilmembers Carlos Leon, Natalie Meeks, Natalie Rubalcava and Norma Kurtz all reported receiving gifts of tickets or dinners from Disney, the largest business interest in the city. 

Newly elected Mayor Ashleigh Aitken during her oath on Dec. 6, 2022 at the River Arena. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Aitken is the daughter of Wylie Aitken, chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors. 

Other city leaders publish portions of their Form 700s, but leave other sections blank. 

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan disclosed the income she receives from sitting on the city council and several gifts from groups like the OC Business Council and Association of California Cities, but no other outside income. 

According to filings with the California Secretary of State, Khan started a company in Irvine called Horizon Consulting USA LLC in 2021, which is also based in Irvine. 

Mayor Farrah N. Khan during the Irvine inauguration in Irvine, Calif. on Dec. 13, 2022. Credit: AMIR GHANI, Voice of OC

Voice of OC could not locate a website for the company, but in an interview posted to YouTube by the Critical Mass Business Talk Show last year, Khan explained what the company does. 

“We’re recruiters,” Khan said. “Focusing mostly in accounting, we do a lot in the solar energy spectrum as well as with attorneys as well, those are the three main areas that I’ve been focusing on.” 

Khan did not respond to requests for comment from Voice of OC asking about Horizon Consulting. 

Vicente encouraged residents who want to know more about their local politics to read all their leaders’ disclosures. 

“They definitely should be reading them, especially voters,” Vicente said. “Following these financial interests helps voters identify if these officials are prioritizing them or the people who are providing these gifts.”  

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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