Conflict mars rail authorityBy Bill Silverfarb
Two California High-Speed Rail Authority board members have a conflict of interest, according to the state Senate's Legislative Counsel Bureau while a third board member wonders why the Attorney General's Office hasn't done anything about it.
Rail authority board members Curt Pringle and Richard Katz both hold two offices which Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine said was a violation of government code in a letter to the Secretary of the Senate.
Pringle is mayor of Anaheim and Katz is a voting member on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Neither may serve in those roles and on the High-Speed Rail Authority simultaneously, according to Boyer-Vine's legal opinion.
Holding dual offices is a violation under the common law doctrine of incompatibility of public offices that is now codified in section 1099 of government code, according to Boyer-Vine's legal opinion.
To sit on the rail authority board, Pringle and Katz must give up their other seats, according to the legal opinion.
Boyer-Vine sent her legal opinion to Secretary of the Senate Greg Schmidt April 23.
Five months later, Quentin Kopp, one of nine rail authority board members along with Pringle and Katz, wonders why the state Attorney General's Office has not taken any action on the issue since the letter was supposedly forwarded to the office back in July, Kopp said.
"The attorney general has failed and refused any action to oust those two officials from public office," Kopp said. "The AG must bring an action any time there is reason to believe public officials are in violation of a statute."
Trouble is, the state Attorney General's Office never got the letter, said Michelle Quinn, a media specialist in the office. And even if it did get the letter, it might not be enough to prompt a formal investigation, Quinn said.
The Attorney General's Office sent its own letter July 30 to Roelof van Ark, the rail authority's chief executive officer, stating it understood that two of its board members "may" be holding more than one public position.
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Susan Duncan Lee, in the opinions unit, said in a letter to van Ark that "when a public officer fails to voluntarily vacate his or her first office, section 1099 is enforceable through a little-known legal procedure known as the quo warranto process."
Quo warranto allows for the removal of a disqualified government official from office, according to Lee.
"Ordinarily, quo warranto proceedings are initiated and prosecuted by individual citizens or by interested local agencies; this office is not generally in the business of seeking out potentially conflicted officeholders and removing them from their offices," according to Lee.
She does say in the letter, however, that the attorney general has authority to bring a quo warranto action on "his" own initiative.
"At this point, we have not received a properly supported request from anyone for leave to file quo warranto proceedings against any HSRA member," Lee wrote in the letter.
Kopp said this letter is evidence the Attorney General's Office is "ducking its duty" and that Boyer-Vine's legal opinion should be enough to prompt action.
He even sent a letter to the Attorney General's Office himself July 9 seeking action on the dual-office holder letter.
And Elizabeth Alexis, with Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, agrees.
Alexis wants Pringle and Katz to resign from their other offices and wants the attorney general to take quick action on the matter.
"The attorney general shouldn't wait," Alexis said. "Why does there have to be a scandal before any action is taken?"
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said it is crucial to get the legal determination sooner rather than later.
"My concern is that if this issue is not resolved it could open up legal challenges to any decisions the board members make," Hill said.
Kopp is worried the attorney general's lack of action will put the board in jeopardy.
"Any action this board takes in this situation renders it vulnerable," Kopp said.
When someone files a quo warranto request with the attorney general, the attorney general's primary consideration is whether it is in the public's interest to have a court decide the issue, Quinn said.
"This office doesn't determine who is right," Quinn said.
Neither Pringle nor Katz could be reached for comment about this story yesterday.
Copyright ©2010 San Mateo Daily Journal. Published 09/29/2010.