Board member says vote didn’t conflict with his interest
STATELINE – She disqualified herself from a discussion that led to the approval of a master plan for the Tahoe City Marina. He didn’t.
Julie Montamedi, a Governing Board member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, recused herself from the discussion saying she felt she had a conflict of interest because her family owns a pier next to the marina.
Steven Merrill, who, like Montamedi, was recently appointed to the board by the governor of California, last week went against the advice of a TRPA attorney to disqualify himself from the discussion and ended up voting on the marina plan.
Merrill, 63, a venture capitalist from San Francisco whose family has had a second home at Tahoe City for years, has an interest in two slips at the marina, each one worth between $60,000 and $300,000 depending on its size and location, according Debra Little-Prestella, office manager for the Tahoe City Marina.
In the end, the Governing Board, minus Montamedi, voted unanimously to approve the master plan. It calls for 84 new boat slips (160 exist today), a three-story parking garage built in partnership with Tahoe City Redevelopment Agency, and other improvements for the marina.
Merrill disclosed 10 minutes into the board’s discussion of the issue that he is a slip owner. He had already revealed his economic interest in the marina in January when he filled out a disclosure form, required of all 15 Governing Board members, seven from Nevada, seven from California and one presidential appointee.
The fact emerged casually on Wednesday at Stateline as Merrill asked questions about the type of breakwater the marina might install under the plan. John Marshall, a TRPA attorney that often oversees board meetings, stopped the discussion and advised Merrill to recuse himself from either discussing or voting on the plan.
Merrill, hardly shaken, said he thought there was no conflict of interest and asked that the board’s discussion continue. Reed Holderman, executive director for The Trust for Public Land of California, who serves as a Governing Board member appointed by the Legislature, suggested the board take a break so that Marshall and Merrill could talk privately about the matter.
About 10 minutes later, Merrill entered the room and said to the board: “The question is, ‘Does it create an economic benefit, a material effect on my economic situation?'” Merrill said. “I can say categorically no.”
The bistate Compact, which established the TRPA to regulate development in the Lake Tahoe Basin and protect the lake’s famed clarity, requires that Merrill disclose any economic interest in projects or regulations that come before the TRPA board.
The Compact states: “No member or employee of the agency shall make, or attempt to influence, an agency decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has an economic interest.
“Members and employees of the agency must disqualify themselves from making or participating in the making of the agency when it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, distinguishable from its effect on the public generally, on the economic interests of the member or employee.”
Once an economic interest has been disclosed, it is up to the Governing Board, or the member of the board who has the potential conflict of interest, to act, Marshall said. No one who attended the board meeting last week objected to Merrill continuing to participate in the discussion or his voting on the project.
“The key thing is, it’s his call,” Marshall said. “I don’t make the call whether that individual has a conflict and also the board doesn’t. I can advise them, but it is the individual’s determination.”
Marshall pointed out that in this case, even if Merrill’s vote is disqualified, the master plan for the Tahoe City Marina would still have been approved because the plan received an adequate number of votes from California board members.
“I have no way of knowing whether it could diminish it or increase it or directly affect it one way or another,” said Merrill regarding his slip ownership and whether it would be affected by the approval of the master plan.”(Montamedi) has a much different economic interest. If I thought it would affect my judgment I couldn’t have possibly participated.”
– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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