The commissioner's conflicts

Planning Commission member Michael Antonini lands in hot water over ethics rules
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

Before the June 5 special meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission got underway, Michael Antonini had an announcement.

Dressed in a charcoal suit and red-checked tie, with his white hair combed back over his skull, the longtime commissioner disclosed that he was a part owner of a condominium in the eastern neighborhoods, where a years-long rezoning effort is nearly complete. That means Antonini is among the people who could benefit from increased land values due to zoning upgrades.

As a result, Antonini begrudgingly declared that he would have to recuse himself from hearings involving the eastern neighborhoods until the potential conflict is dealt with.

"Hopefully this can be resolved in the next few weeks and I'll be able to participate at later hearings," Antonini said at the meeting.

But it was a bit late to be complying with the state's conflict-of-interest laws: Antonini had already actively taken part in meetings in which the plan was discussed. And Antonini also neglected to mention that after he and his son purchased the condo, he voted on two other projects that appear to be within steps of it.

Public records show that Antonini bought the $515,000 condo at 200 Townsend Street in 2003 with his real estate agent son, John. Commissioner Antonini and his wife own a 25 percent stake in the property through a family trust the couple created in 1997. His son holds the majority interest.

Antonini worked hard to play down his stake in the condo at the June 5 meeting. It's not an investment property, he made clear to the commissioners. There's no rent generated from it. He's a mere minority holder in a family trust that controls the condo, and it was purchased as a residence for his son and his wife.

"Because I did not believe our fractional interest in John's condo represented a conflict, I did not consider reclusing [sic] myself from projects near the condo," Antonini wrote to the Guardian.

But the laws on this are pretty clear. The state's Political Reform Act of 1974 prohibits public officials from participating in decisions that will have a "foreseeable material financial effect on one or more of his/her economic interests." It also states that any "direct or indirect interest" worth more than $2,000 poses a potential conflict, for which a 25 percent stake in a half-million dollar condo would seem to qualify.

RECUSE ME

Other public officials in similar situations have recused themselves long before the issue became a potential political liability.

Sup. Bevan Dufty bought into a three-unit residential property on Waller Street with two co-tenants in December 2006. He immediately sought advice from the city attorney, who told him he no longer could vote on the Market-Octavia Plan, a series of land-use changes in Hayes Valley, Duboce Triangle, and elsewhere that was similar in scope to the current rezoning efforts in the eastern neighborhoods. The supervisor also couldn't vote on a major Laguna Street redevelopment project or on legislation making it easier for seniors to convert rental units to condos.

Antonini told us that "only in the last month" did the city attorney warn some officials involved with plans for the eastern neighborhoods that if they held property in the area, there could be a conflict of interest.

"We've been working on [the eastern neighborhoods] for the whole six years I've been on the planning commission," he said at the meeting. "It's a little troubling that this issue of conflict is raised now rather than at the very beginning."

The law does make an exception when the economic interests of the "public generally" could also be enhanced by a government decision such as those that have an impact on a large section of the city like the eastern neighborhoods.

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