(Perceived) Conflict of interest

Again, I know this story has nothing to do with the San Gabriel Valley. But it does have to do with a theme we see often in the SGV: conflict of interest vs. perceived conflict of interest.

Emeryville mayor facing city, state probes
Shaleece Haas, Special to The Chronicle

 

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The mayor of Emeryville, who describes himself as “tired of being broke,” is under investigation by the city attorney for accepting a consulting contract with a company recently hired to provide Internet service to five municipal buildings.

Ken Bukowski, 57, a retired nightclub owner and 21-year veteran of the City Council, has also refused to pay business taxes to the city for more than four years and owes nearly $2,000 in property taxes. In addition, state officials are investigating the mayor for possible violations of the state’s Political Reform Act.

City Attorney Michael Biddle said he is concerned about Bukowski’s business relationship with Paxio Inc., the firm that in June won a $24,643 Internet service contract with the city.

Bukowski said Paxio pays him $1,500 a month to “hook them up with businesspeople and developers in the city.” But he says that the deal began after the city contract had been signed and that he has not voted on any issue affecting the company’s work in Emeryville.

The city attorney said that while he sees nothing wrong with a council member getting paid to help a company do business in Emeryville, “when that company is contracted with the city, that crosses a line.”

Central to the question of whether Bukowski’s actions regarding Paxio are legal is whether his business relationship with the firm began after the contract with the city had been signed, and whether the mayor has voted on, or influenced others to vote on, issues concerning Paxio.

“I’m still trying to find out the facts,” Biddle said.

Bukowski defended his arrangement with Paxio and said he is helping the company to build an open-access fiber-optic network that will ultimately benefit the city as a whole.

Phillip Clark, Paxio’s chief executive officer, said he sees no conflict of interest in Paxio’s arrangement with Bukowski. He pointed out that the mayor was hired in July primarily to help Paxio make business contacts with city officials outside Emeryville.

But Biddle is concerned about the implications. “Even if the law says it’s OK to continue the contract (with Paxio), we’ll probably have to terminate it and find someone else,” he said. “Irrespective of the law, to me it just smells bad.”

JoAnne Speers, executive director of the Institute for Local Government, a Sacramento organization that helps city officials comply with state ethics rules, stressed that it is important for elected officials to consider not only the legality of their actions, but also the way those actions will be perceived by the public.

“The law is a floor – not a ceiling – for what you need to think about as a public official,” she said. “Local officials have the ethical responsibility to think about the appearance of impropriety.”

Turned in by city clerk
It was not the appearance of impropriety, but a violation of state ethics laws, that led Emeryville’s city clerk to report the mayor to a statewide political watchdog organization last year for failing to file campaign disclosure forms since 2003.

Bukowski completed the overdue forms earlier this year, but Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said Bukowski is under investigation for possible violations of the Political Reform Act. Porter declined to give details of the investigation.

If the commission determines that Bukowski has failed to comply with ethics laws, it may fine him. And that could contribute to the mayor’s already strained finances.

“I’m tired of being broke,” Bukowski said. “I get paid $1,100 a month by the city, and I have some income from renting my property, but it’s not enough. I always did well when I was in business, so I’m not used to this.”

Bukowski’s Statement of Economic Interests, an income-disclosure form required by federal law, says he earned between $10,001 and $100,000 in rental income from his Doyle Street property in 2007.

The mayor said that he recently had his cell phone disconnected for lack of payment and that in the previous week alone he had received five $35 overdraft charges on his ATM card. When he encountered difficulty paying his mortgage six months ago, he said a local developer who is also a friend gave him a $30,000, 10-year loan.

While his mortgage is current, county records show that Bukowski owes $1,720 in property taxes from last year, and another $800 is due in December.

Even with his consulting job, the mayor said he needs another source of income to make ends meet.

Several months ago, he began work on a new business venture, an Internet cafe based out of his house, which was outfitted with Paxio fiber-optic cable that the mayor does not believe he will have to pay for. “They’re not going to send me a bill. They’re so happy about getting Emeryville and getting all these accounts. I hope it’s a perk. It should be.”

Paxio’s Clark said that free fiber-optic installation is included with all service contracts, and that after the standard 45-day trial period, Bukowski will be charged for Internet service at the same rate as any other residential customer. As for funding the cafe, Clark said Paxio has no plans to support Bukowski’s venture.

Internet cafe plans
Bukowski said he plans to convert the front section of his Doyle Street home into an Internet cafe and offer computer games and high-bandwidth services that showcase the benefits of fiber optics.

“I see it as a way to market Paxio,” he said. “It’s going to work really well.”

City Councilman John Fricke, an outspoken opponent of the mayor’s politics, is also critical of Bukowski’s behavior outside the council chamber.

In addition to Bukowski’s failure to file campaign disclosure forms, Fricke criticized the mayor’s refusal to pay business license taxes owed to the city for more than four years.

Under Emeryville’s Business License Tax Ordinance, residential landlords are required to pay a 0.08 percent tax on their rental income. Though the taxes on Bukowski’s rental property would likely be less than $100 per year, he is defiant.

“Why am I going to pay this tax? It’s not something I support,” he said.

When the city sent him a notice in 2004 requiring that he obtain a business license, Bukowski took his objection to the City Council. In his role as council member, Bukowski called for a vote to suspend collection of the taxes until a public hearing could be scheduled.

Biddle said Bukowski’s request to suspend the tax did not violate conflict-of-interest laws because the council did not bring the issue to a vote.

Bukowski said his opposition to the tax is not the only reason he hasn’t paid. “In my large list of creditors, it’s on the bottom of my list,” he said.

Bukowski was re-elected to the council in 2007, and in December was appointed mayor by his fellow council members. That same week, he struck and killed a pedestrian in his SUV. He was not charged in the accident, but the victim’s family has filed a wrongful death suit against Bukowski and the city of Emeryville.

Councilwoman Nora Davis, who has served with Bukowski since 1987, says, “The people of Emeryville have elected him five times. They have evinced a lot of support for Mayor Bukowski over the years.”

But in June of last year, Davis led the charge to formally censure Bukowski, in part for disclosing confidential information from closed meetings. The censure resolution was never brought to a vote, and Bukowski has not been formally reprimanded for his actions.

“There’s nothing the city can do, quite frankly,” Biddle said. “It’s up to the voters. They can take matters into their own hands, if you know what I mean.”

This article appeared on page B – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

  • TC Resident

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the local pols tried to shy away from a perceived sense of confict of interest? They have the ability to do it, but find that the money they make using their Council/legislative body connections trumps giving the community a (false) sense of hope. In Temple City, Mayor Cathe Wilson used her Council connections to work for a fireworks company and Athens trash. She also supports City Manager/City Attorney/Redevelopment Executive Director/Treasurer Charlie Martin who loves to flaunt his conflict of interest thoughts. The Star-News/Tribune should mention his $400,000 fine over conflict of interest charges while in Irwindale. They’re all crooks!

  • Anonymous

    this paper’s specialty is highlighting the percieved.

  • Anonymous

    click clack click clack

  • WC Resident

    Here in West Covina we have the king of (Perceived) Conflict of Interest, Councilman Touhey. With his consultant work with the very same contractors and developers that work with the city he is definately the King of the SGV.