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Leece seeks state review on Banning vote

Questions arise if the Costa Mesa councilwoman could vote on her city accepting money from the developer even though she lives near the development.

August 04, 2012|By Joseph Serna

Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece is seeking an opinion from the state Fair Political Practices Commission on whether it is a conflict of interest for her to reopen an agreement Tuesday between her city and the developer of Banning Ranch.

Leece's Westside address is near the 401-acre swath of oil fields that its developer, Newport Banning Ranch LLC, wants to clean up and build new homes and businesses upon.

Costa Mesa, which has no formal say in whether the development in West Newport can move forward, voted July 17 to accept $4.4 million from Newport Banning Ranch to pay for road improvements at seven of the city's intersections. Residents complained to the council about that decision, which Leece opposed.

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However, Leece's peers on the council, who each voted for the city to receive the money, felt she should have stayed out of the issue because of her home's proximity to Banning Ranch.

"My fellow City Council members see a conflict of interest in my vote because my home is located within 500 feet of the Banning Ranch project," Leece wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to the FPPC. "However, the only matter I voted on was whether to accept $4.3 million in traffic impact mitigation fees … my property is not affected differently from all the other properties in my city, or at least the thousands of other properties within the area affected by increased traffic."

A spokesman for the FPPC, an independent state agency, contacted by the Daily Pilot before Leece sent her letter said the commission had no opinion because it had not yet received an inquiry about the matter. The FPPC typically reacts to complaints, and no one had filed one opposing Leece's vote.

Conflict-of-interest guidelines typically advise officials to avoid votes on projects within 500 feet of where they live and, in some cases, where they do business.

Though Leece's house is within 500 feet of the project, she argued that because it isn't within 500 feet of any of the intersections slated to be rebuilt, there's no conflict. She also pointed out that there are more than 230 businesses near the seven intersections named in the agreement.

City Attorney Tom Duarte said Friday that he has not sought an opinion from the FPPC on the matter. He initially advised Leece not to vote.

Other members of the council wanted to hear the FPPC's opinion.

"Clearly, we've got to get some direction," said Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer. "To anybody who's seen this stuff, it would be surprising to anybody who follows these rules that someone who backs up to Banning Ranch is somehow affected the same as 5,000 properties near it … she can do whatever she wants to do.

"She's the one that has to answer to the FPPC if she's incorrect."

Banning Ranch would include about 1,375 homes, a 75-room resort hotel and a 75,000-square-foot commercial development. Up to 65% of the traffic going to and from the area is estimated to pass through Costa Mesa once the property is fully constructed.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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