Avoiding conflicts

Councilwoman Ann Schwab defends her duty to recuse herself

Ann Schwab says her decision to recuse herself from discussions is based on potential conflicts of interest with her downtown business and park-adjacent home.

Ann Schwab says her decision to recuse herself from discussions is based on potential conflicts of interest with her downtown business and park-adjacent home.

Photo by Ken Smith

On Oct. 4, the Chico City Council discussed a budget adjustment that included improvements to the downtown sidewalk in front of Zucchini & Vine. Councilwoman Ann Schwab co-owns a business just down the street, so she recused herself to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

But as Schwab headed for the lobby, fellow Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer deviated from the meeting’s agenda to speak her mind.

“I think we need to get some clarification on when we can recuse ourselves and when we can’t, because it seems like the El Rey [Theatre] was within 500 feet of her business as well,” Fillmer said, referring to a previous discussion about the theater, in which Schwab did participate. “But she can recuse herself from an appropriation issue?”

Schwab turned around and responded that she’d consulted with City Attorney Vince Ewing to confirm her eligibility to participate in the El Rey discussion under Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) regulations, which state that public officials can’t make decisions on issues within 500 feet of their private financial interests. Ewing also spoke up, confirming that the theater is an acceptable distance from Schwab’s downtown business, Campus Bicycles.

“It kind of caught me off guard and it was definitely an awkward situation, as I was leaving the room and didn’t really have an opportunity to address the question,” Schwab said of Fillmer’s comments during an interview this week.

Schwab has sat on the council for 12 years, served as mayor from 2008 to 2012 and is currently running for re-election. Fillmer continued the criticism when interviewed for an Oct. 22 Chico Enterprise-Record article focused on the fact that Schwab has recused herself 16 times since September 2015.

Fillmer—who refused interview requests for this article—told the E-R: “I think that we have a judiciary responsibility to vote on a majority of the items. If we find there’s a conflict on so many items that are so significant to the city … which are a lot of items Ann has recused herself from, then maybe you should reconsider whether you can adequately vote for the citizens of Chico.”

Fillmer doubled down on Facebook, where she posted a link to the E-R article and posed the question: “So, for your information, we did further research and Ann Schwab has recused herself 114 times since she started in office. What are your thoughts?” The post has since been removed.

Schwab said the E-R article spurred her to take a closer look at her own voting record. Of the 16 instances referenced, she found—and the CN&R confirmed—that all but three ended in 6-0 votes, meaning her vote generally wouldn’t have altered decisions.

“People think 16 votes sounds like a lot, but when you look at how many votes we take over the course of a year, it’s just a small fraction,” she said, noting that decisions recalled due to FPPC violations are rendered null and discussion must start anew. “FPPC guidelines say you should recuse yourself if there’s a real or even a perceived conflict. I think the community appreciates that I’m being ethical and am not willing to cross that line.”

According to Google Maps, Schwab chose correctly on Oct. 4. The El Rey Theatre is more than 700 feet from her business, and Zucchini & Vine sits about 490 feet from the cycle shop.

Though unable to speak specifically to Schwab’s situation, FPPC Communications Director Jay Wierenga offered some insight about conflicts of interest.

“It’s always best for a public official to err on the side of caution,” he said. “Generally speaking, votes can be put off until questions are answered, so it’s always better for someone to not participate if they suspect there’s an issue,” Wierenga said. “If they’re unsure, we encourage them to start with their city or county attorney, and to contact our legal department if they need advice.”

The 500-foot rule and other conflict-of-interest guidelines are established by the state’s Political Reform Act, adopted in 1974. The guidelines are available on the FPPC’s website, as are results of recent actions. In September, for example, City of Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano was cited $15,500 for multiple transgressions, including voting to place an all-way stop sign within 150 feet of his home. In July, Port Hueneme City Councilman Jonathan Sharkey was fined $3,000 for voting to approve a city budget and capital improvement program that included funding for two parks within 500 feet of his residence.

Schwab said she herself was the target of FPPC scrutiny in 2010, when Mayor Mark Sorensen—then a fledgling councilman—complained about a partnership between Chico State and the city’s Sustainability Task Force, which she chaired: “He alleged my employment with CSU, Chico, was a conflict in that participation, but I’m not an employee of CSU, Chico, so that complaint was completely unfounded.” (Schwab is program director at Community Action Volunteers in Education and employed by the Associated Students).

Schwab said Fillmer’s focus on her recusals harkens back to that episode: “If I have questions about a fellow council member’s stance, their motivation on an issue, or why they choose to recuse themselves, I’d go talk to them directly,” she said. “As far as Councilmember Fillmer is concerned, an appropriate way to address her concerns would have been to put the issue on the agenda so we could have a discussion, rather than shout it from the dais as I was leaving the chambers.”