Charges fly over PG&E grant

Sustainability Task Force grant sparks debate

A $400,000 grant to the city of Chico from Pacific Gas & Electric and news of how it’s been doled out has sparked some grumblings and raised some suspicion in the community. Specifically, that suspicion comes from Chico City Councilman Mark Sorensen and the editorial board of the Chico Enterprise-Record. They are both claiming a conflict of interest occurred in connection to the grant.

At the center of the storm is the city’s Sustainability Task Force, formed in 2007 and chaired by Mayor Ann Schwab. The task force’s mission is to “promote a culture of stewardship within our community to enhance our natural resources, economic interests and quality of life for present and future generations in the City of Chico by collaboratively developing programs and initiatives which will distinguish Chico as a leader in sustainability efforts.”

The task force put together a competitive grant request for the PG&E money, which goes to help homeowners retrofit their houses to be more energy-efficient. It would also create local jobs by training contractors in new, environmentally sound ways of construction. The request for the grant, which was awarded to the city, was co-written by McNall, Stallman, Herman and a woman named Lindsay Buckley, who was working for the Great Valley Center’s Chico office at the time.

But as it turns out two members of the task force are benefiting financially from the grant after being awarded contracts from the city. Jon Stallman, who was appointed to the task force by Schwab to represent Butte College, got $70,000, and Scott McNall, representing Chico State, was awarded a $10,000 contract.

Sorensen and the E-R have both cried “conflict of interest.” They cite the state’s Political Reform Act, which states: “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.”

Sorensen first raised the issue on a blog he posts on NorCal Blogs. In an email to McNall, who had contacted Sorensen to protest the blog, Sorensen says the task force members are indeed public officials who make government decisions and that the PG&E grant was such a decision.

But are members of the task force “public officials”? Schwab, not surprisingly, says no. Members do not have to fill out a 700 form as required by the Fair Political Practices Commission for what it considers “public officials.” Plus, she said, they are not elected by the council, as members of the city’s boards and commissions are, but rather appointed by individual councilmembers. And their actions do not necessarily influence council decisions.

City Attorney Lori Barker says at this point the matter is not clear.

“I do not have an answer yet. It is only a conflict if the state’s Political Reform Act applies. Not every single legislative body that exists has decision-making power. If it has a history of making recommendations to the City Council that are routinely approved, then maybe. But there is just not a bright-line test here. The task force did not have that power when it was first formed. I have to determine whether it has crossed over the line. I need to look into that.”

Linda Herman, administrative services manager for the city, issued the contracts to Stallman and McNall and was criticized in the E-R editorial for not putting the contracts out for bid.

“It’s not like Jon is just pocketing the money,” she said. “He’s crawling through attics and training students. Jon was working with Butte College at least until June 30. He’s been working on this project for two years and taught solar classes at Butte. He’s very knowledgeable and works with the Building Performance Institute, an organization that teaches people how to assess and upgrade residential buildings.”

She said Stallman is supervising the workers who are currently auditing an average of two houses per day. The contract calls for a total of 100 to be audited.

Stallman says he’s counted up his hours and at this point figures he’s making about $5 an hour.

“This is not a bunch of people lining their pockets with money. We’re benefiting local contactors and those who are under-employed and unemployed. And let’s be very clear about my involvement with the task force. I represented Butte College, but the relationship with the school ended in June and I did not go to another task force meeting. At that point there was some confusion on my side as to what my role was with the task force. Ann [Schwab] has listed me as a member at large.”

For his part, McNall said that for some this is a political matter. “Mr. Sorensen should direct his concerns to members of the council. I entered into this process the same way I would with any grant—proposing to provide specific services. The grant was, from the get-go, clearly a partnership with Chico State, Butte College and the city of Chico.”