Monday, January 17, 2011

Sidelining of Chula Vista councilwoman questioned

Sidelining of Chula Vista councilwoman questioned
City attorney says she has a conflict on police contracts because her adult son is a lieutenant
By Tanya Sierra
January 13, 2011

New Chula Vista Councilwoman Patricia Aguilar has a son on the police force, a relationship that has become a city issue amid tense labor negotiations.

Aguilar has been asked by the city’s attorney to stay on the sidelines for decisions involving the police union as her son is Lt. Phil Collum, 40, even though the two do not share a home or finances.

The city wants police to contribute nine percent of their salary to their pensions and forgo a six percent previously-agreed-upon raise. The move would save $2.5 million annually amid a budget crunch.

The city might have to lay off 24 low-seniority cops if police don’t give in. Most of the city’s other employees have agreed to contribute to their own pensions and adjust their pay.

Critics are concerned there may be political motivations for the legal advice concerning contract negotiations.

“I can understand how management would be concerned but the attorney should not be jaded by that kind of perspective,” Councilman Steve Castaneda said. “To come to that sort of harsh and extreme decision to disqualify an elected City Council member on facts that don’t seem to be germane to this situation, I think it is problematic.”

Three members of the council have reservations about the city attorney’s legal advice — Aguilar, Castaneda and Councilman Rudy Ramirez.

Ramirez notes that his brother is on the police force, and that’s never been deemed a legal or ethical issue because the two don’t live together or mix finances.

“I asked, ‘If Pat has a conflict, then why not me?’ and I was told that there was no conflict for me because he was my brother as opposed to being my son,” Ramirez said. “You don’t negotiate by concocting some legal position to affect the negotiations. Especially a labor negotiation where we’re going to have to live together and work together.”

City Attorney Glen Googins, also elected in November, issued the advice letter suggesting Aguilar abstain on police labor issues.

Googins acknowledges that Aguilar has no conflict under the state’s Government Code, but he relies instead on a 2009 Attorney General’s opinion that outlines slightly different rules under common law. That doctrine has a broader prohibition against participation in government decisions that might affect personal interests.

The 2009 opinion found a conflict of interest for a redevelopment agency board member whose son had a corporation seeking a contract with his mother’s agency. That mother and son shared an apartment.

Aguilar, who has so far abided by Googins’ recommendation, said her circumstances are different from those in the Attorney General’s opinion because she doesn’t live with her son and they don’t mix finances. Also, she noted, he is not a direct party to a city contract she would have to approve.

“In my case, my son is affected by the issue of contract negotiation only as a part of a larger class of people affected,” she said. “One is a very direct and the other is not.”

Googins, who ran on a campaign of government transparency, refused to release his legal opinion. Googins promised voters he would make his legal opinions public. But in this case, he said, he was not releasing the document because he has not developed a protocol by which to do that.

The Watchdog obtained the advice letter through another source. It notes that Lt. Collum is a board member for the police union.

“As a board member, he is in a position to influence whether or not negotiations will occur and what direction those negotiations should take,” the opinion says.

Googins would not discuss the opinion, saying it was legal advice between him and his client...

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