Neel questions conflict of interest


News Review Staff Writer

During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s Ridgecrest City Council meeting, Mike Neel said that he believed that Parks and Recreation Director Jason Patin, who is also the owner of Coldwell Banker Bester Realty, has a potential conflict of interest with the city’s proposed parks assessment.

Patin, City Manager Ron Strand and other city officials pitched the assessment to local community groups as a potential solution to the city’s growing backlog of park improvement and maintenance projects.

For about $50 per parcel, property owners would have a fee levied on property tax rolls to generate upward of $600,000 in annual income to address those needs. (Ballots for the initiative went out this week for input from property owners.)

“I believe it was stated that this tax assessment would be a benefit to properties, as I recall? Is that an accurate statement?”

Strand answered in the affirmative.

Neel said that since that benefit will not be the addition of service, he believes that “benefit” assumes that property values would increase as a result of the assessment.

“We have a problem. We have a Parks Department director who owns largest real estate company in town,” said Neel. He said that Patin has been promoting the initiative in the city. “Assuming the assessment passes, and property values increase, our parks and rec director benefits.”

He said that apparent conflict of interest would not look good to the public, and the fact that Patin is both the parks and recreation director and the owner of Coldwell Banker are readily available pieces of data.

“It took me three to five minutes of considering these two things to decide there is a problem here. It just needs to be thought about seriously in the city before proceeding along,” said Neel.

“If you want people to trust you, I’m not sure what you’re going to do about this one.”

Strand responded that by Neel’s argument, any improvement to the city would be a conflict of interest for Patin. “Improving roads would improve property values; so would putting more officers on the street or engaging in economic development endeavors.

“If the base increases by 500 employees — yes, that increases the value of our homes. Almost anything under that theory could be a conflict of interest.”

City Attorney Keith Lemieux said that conflict of interest determinations require a legal analysis beyond “a couple of minutes of thought.”

He said that the primary provision for conflict of interest involve a decision-maker involved in a contract where the individual can potentially benefit.

If a decision or initiative affects an official in the same manner that it affects the general public, that is not considered a conflict of interest, he added.

Lemieux noted that the city would need to enter into a memorandum if it wanted legal counsel to develop an official opinion on the matter.

“It was not [Patin’s] decision to put forward the initiative. He’s just a member of the voting public at this point.”

Story First Published: 2019-03-08