Serving The Supe?
Did Judy Pennycook use her influence to push through her subdivision?
Thursday, May 21, 1998
Despite earlier denials from District 2 Supervisor Judy Pennycook that she attempted to influence county staffers working on a subdivision of her North County property, a key county official this week admitted he met with Pennycook on at least a couple occasions in early 1996 about the project.
Pennycook''s subdivision has already received overwhelming approvals by the county''s Minor Subdivision Committee, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors. It is now awaiting Pennycook''s filing of a final subdivision map.
"I met with her a couple times out in the field like I would any applicant," Richard LeWarne, a branch manager in the Environmental Health Division, told Coast Weekly. "It was a couple times, then after that I only met with her representatives."
Unlike "any other applicant," Pennycook is a public official bound by state law and county policies preventing use of their authority for personal gain. "No public official at any level of state or local government shall make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest," reads section 87100 of the Government Code.
Yet County Counsel Doug Holland said contact with a staffer does not automatically equate to an attempt to influence a decision being made in an open public forum. He said being a supervisor doesn''t take away Pennycook''s basic rights as a citizen.
"She could have actually come in, made the application, and represented herself all the way through the process," he says.
Previously, Pennycook had denied trying to influence county staff in interviews with both Coast Weekly and the Monterey County Herald.
"I have done everything in my power to be removed from the process so there is no appearance of impropriety," she told Coast Weekly last year, while the Herald in February, 1997 quoted Pennycook as saying, "I''ve done everything personally possible to take myself out of the process. I''ve totally backed out."
LeWarne played a pivotal role in allowing Pennycook''s project to move forward, working with Pennycook on finding an acceptable place for septic tanks, an issue that had derailed the project five years earlier, before Pennycook was elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Asked about the meetings with LeWarne, Pennycook this week admitted that she had met at least once with LeWarne, perhaps twice, but added that the purpose of that meeting or meetings was only to provide information about property boundaries.
"To the best of my recollection, I remember not even getting out of the car," Pennycook said.
The substance of the discussions between Pennycook and LeWarne could not be confirmed because Environmental Health Director Walter Wong was reviewing his department''s project file--which would contain any notes taken by LeWarne--and at press time had not yet honored a Coast Weekly request to review it.
Pennycook in 1990 first applied to subdivide into five parcels a 25-acre property she bought at Strawberry and Tucker roads east of Moss Landing; a property made up mostly of wetlands.
At that time, officials from the county''s environmental health division concluded that the groundwater was too close to the surface to allow for septic tanks on four out of five proposed parcels, effectively scuttling Pennycook''s subdivision plans. A May 1, 1991 letter to Pennycook stating that is signed by Derinda Messenger, a senior environmental health specialist.
Fast forward to 1996, less than two years after Pennycook is elected to the board. Pennycook revived her dormant subdivision plans, this time hiring prominent development attorney Tony Lombardo, who assigned Messenger--who had since given up public service for the private sector--as the point person on Pennycook''s project.
For her part, Pennycook this week expressed indignation that this subdivision and her role in its approval continues to be an issue, especially now, with the election less than two weeks away.
"The timing, I think, is real curious," she told Coast Weekly.
Pennycook also underscores her project was well designed and has had broad support. That support is reflected in letters received by the county from the California Coastal Commission staff and such experts as Dr. Robert Curry of The Watershed Institute at California State University Monterey Bay.
Pennycook also pointed out that she hired an expensive and effective attorney--Lombardo--to handle the project "so I would be entirely removed from the process." That''s an action she took after her initial meetings with LeWarne.
Yet the candidates vying for Pennycook''s District 2 seat--Kurt Hunter and Mike Weaver--do see something wrong with a sitting supervisor having contact with a staffer charged with making decisions about her development project.
Pennycook''s subdivision was appealed to the Monterey County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors by Weaver, who expressed concerns about the appropriateness of both the project and a county supervisor pursuing a development project.
"If she is meeting with staff, I would say that represents undue influence, because she was essentially his boss," Hunter said. "I would say that is a conflict of interest."
Hunter was also bothered by the fact that LeWarne, who heads the Consumer Protection branch of Environmental Health, was the staff person working on the project. Consumer Protection usually regulates things like restaurants and swimming pools, not residential subdivisions.
"It seems abnormal that he was assigned to this project," Hunter said. "(LeWarne) is the person Walter (Wong) usually goes to in difficult situations."
LeWarne denied that there was anything unusual about this project being assigned to him, even though it is not normally his realm, and said he didn''t know exactly why Wong had assigned it to him. Project Planner Wanda Hickman said she thought "he was assigned because he had some knowledge about this project."
Ultimately it was LeWarne who made the decision that the septic tank alignment on Pennycook''s property was OK and that the project could go forward for approval. cw