Monday, January 11, 2010

Correspondence from City Councilman Stephen Souza: What claim was false?

Unsolicited, I got an email today from Davis City Councilman Stephen Souza. I like Stephen personally and am always happy to hear from him. However, I was intrigued by the title of his email. On the subject line it read, "False claim."

Here is how Stephen begins:
Hi Mr. Rifkin ...

It's interesting to me that in an email sent to me alone (with no apparent cc's) Stephen addresses me as "Mr. Rifkin."

I've had many conversations with Stephen and found him friendly, relaxed and informal. I've been to his home to play poker and drink beer and sip tequila. I've had a number of off-the-cuff conversations with him regarding any manner of personal subjects. On all of those occasions, each time we have spoken and in all emails he has sent to me in the past, he always called me, "Rich," not "Mr. Rifkin." I can understand formality in a formal setting, such as a meeting of the Davis City Council. But in a one-to-one email, it is jarring that all informality has been dropped.

Now to his points:
I for the last 21+ years of service to the City of Davis have always had the interests of all Davisites above myself and contributors to my four campaigns for Davis City Council.

That may be true. However, when an elected official takes money -- in his case, thousands of dollars -- from members of a special interest group (the Davis firefighters' union) and agrees to a contract with that group which was not good for the citizens of Davis in my estimation and not good in the estimation of both of the members of the Davis City Council who were not supported in the last four years by Local 3494, his actions have the appearance of being unethical and improper and not in the best "interests of all Davisites."

Stephen continues:
In those campaigns I have been the largest contributor, $15,000 in 2004 and $6,000 in 2008. The next largest group is retired individuals, next working, next business/developer interest, and in the last two campaigns last firefighters.

Those are four distinct types of contributors:

1. The candidate himself. His giving $21,000 to his campaigns suggests he really wanted the job. That's fine. I have no problem with him giving to his own campaign if he can afford it. (Stephen, who owns and operates a swimming pool cleaning company, mentioned to me in a conversation a few months ago that he also sacrificed more, because his position on the council forced him to give up lucrative contracts with some large apartment complexes, as well.)

Not specific to Stephen, but I do wonder about some candidates who "loan" large amounts of their money to their campaigns. The potential problem with that arrangement is who gives the money to the elected official after the campaign is over. That is, the loans get paid back by someone. If people who do business with the city are repaying those loans -- that is, giving money in post-election fundraisers -- how are voters supposed to know that when they vote?

2. Retired & working Davisites who presumably don't benefit directly by his votes. There is no ethical question about these gifts. As it happens, I gave Stephen $35 for his last campaign and fit into this category.

3. Business and developer interests. This can be a problem area. One of the things which makes Stephen a highly qualified candidate for elective office in Davis is that he has a successful business which he started and operates himself. He is not just a success, but he knows how to work hard and knows what it takes to succeed in business in Davis. As such, it's natural that other members of the Chamber of Commerce would like to see such a person in office. However, if business people giving him money are also doing business with the City and Stephen is in a position to make decisions which directly affect their fortunes, that has the appearance of a conflict of interest and should not be allowed in Davis.

4. The firefighters. This is by far the worst type of campaign cash to accept and then turn around and vote on their contract. It appears corrupt, especially since the only members of the City Council who favored their last contract took money from Local 3494 and none who did not get firefighter cash in the last four years approve that contract.

The appropriate tact for a candidate for the Davis City Council is to not accept contributions from groups like the firefighters or developers. However, in the case where a member of the council has accepted funds from individuals who stand to benefit from a vote of the council, that member of the council has a moral obligation to recuse himself from such a vote. When Stephen Souza, Don Saylor and Ruth Asmundson did not recuse themselves from the vote on the firefighter contract, they failed the moral test.

Stephen goes on:
This round of contract negotiations, my second, I asked for and the Council passed a set of Guiding Principles and Objectives for Negotiations Related to Employee Compensation. They are guiding me in seeking reductions in employee total compensation.

The guiding principles were not all I would have wanted. For example, they required no changes regarding union bank hours, excessive vacations and holidays and so on. However, they had some good in them and they let the public know in advance what the majority of the City Council was hoping to get out of its secret negotiations with the labor groups. As such, I applaud the notion of guiding principals.

The problem, alas, was that the most important principle -- to fix the unfunded retiree medical liability -- was untouched by the changes in the new contract. As such, the council had its guiding principles and failed to be guided by them in this most crucial respect.
My service is to you and all Davisites. I do it in ALL Davisites favor, not in favor one person or group. Stephen

Words only go so far. When you accept money from firefighters and vote on their behalf, you have created the appearance of a conflict of interest. To me, that is unacceptable, but correctable. What Stephen Souza and his colleagues on the council ought to do is take up this question in their ethics' guidelines. They ought to make a recusal in such conflicted instances mandatory.

I have never claimed Stephen or anyone on the City Council is corrupt. I claim instead that they have allowed by their actions an appearance of corruption. And that claim, Stephen, is undeniably true.

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