State commission investigates conflict-of-interest claim in SLO all-electric building vote

Nov 13, 2019

Santa Rosa and Pacifica are the latest California cities to draft local laws aiming to curb the use of natural gas infrastructure in new construction. It’s part of a push to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. San Luis Obispo city officials voted once, in early September, to pass a similar ordinance on what’s called decarbonization. But then attorneys for a utility labor union cried foul.

San Luis Obispo city council member and vice mayor Andy Pease is a partner in a green building consultancy firm, one that helps clients build commercial or residential projects that save energy and meet industry standards for sustainability. So, according to a law firm representing the Utility Workers Union of America Local 132, by voting on an ordinance that incentivizes all-electric appliances and heating and cooling systems in new buildings, Pease has a conflict of interest, and should be disqualified from voting.

On September 3, the city’s new Clean Energy Choice Program passed by a vote of four to one. But before the city council could finalize the ordinance with a second reading at its September 17 meeting, the city received the letter from the union's legal team claiming that Pease's "business interests...create the conflict." City officials then asked the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for guidance.

But instead of offering direction, the FPPC is now investigating, and all of the city’s actions regarding decarbonization are on hold. On November 7, the FPPC sent a letter to the union’s attorney—and Pease—informing them that the commission's Enforcement Division was investigating the conflict-of-interest allegations.

The commission’s attorney also sent an email message to San Luis Obispo city attorney Christine Dietrick, saying the FPPC’s Advice Division couldn’t provide advice on the case, as requested.

“The reason we have to decline to provide advice is because...a court may enjoin and ultimately void any action taken by a city council if it determines that a disqualified councilmember took part in the decision,” FPPC council Toren Lewis wrote in an email to Dietrick, who provided a copy to KCBX News. “Since we cannot determine whether Councilmember Pease was disqualified from participating in the Council’s September actions (because it involves past conduct), we therefore must decline to provide written advice as to future decisions.”

Dietrick said the San Luis Obispo city council “has not yet made any decisions regarding whether to proceed without Vice Mayor Pease’s participation.”

If  it is determined that Pease is disqualified from voting on the ordinance, the new building standards—called reach codes—could still be enacted if there remains a three-vote majority on the issue when the FPPC investigation concludes.