The commissioner's conflicts - Page 2

Planning Commission member Michael Antonini lands in hot water over ethics rules
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But the city attorney's office concluded for now that the condo indeed may pose a conflict. And in the meantime, Antonini told us that the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento, which helps enforce the state's Political Reform Act, is being consulted to determine "whether our fractional interest in the condo truly represents a conflict of interest."

The eastern neighborhoods planning process isn't the only legislation that created a potential conflict for Antonini. The commissioner voted in January 2007 to approve construction of 26 new single-room occupancy units at 25 Lusk Alley, not far from his property at 200 Townsend. The project's sponsor, Michael Yarne, is a land-use attorney who today works for the mayor's economic development office. The project was approved, according to meeting minutes.

The project itself relied on a contentious legal loophole in which developers claim their units are "single-room occupancy," a necessity because the area permits residential efficiency hotels where the poor and working-class used to live. Allowing such SRO hotels in areas zoned for light industrial uses enabled the city to preserve some forms of affordable housing. But builders can turn around and lease the opulently large units such as the ones at 25 Lusk, which bear little resemblance to genuine SRO rooms, to well-heeled clients.

"They are allowed where normal residential units are not allowed, because historically SROs were always extremely affordable housing," community organizer Calvin Welch said. "The whole notion of market-rate SROs is a new invention, and that's why they're controversial. They're basically the new version of live-work lofts."

In November 2006, Antonini also voted to approve a liquor license for a new full-service restaurant and wine bar at 216 Townsend, even closer to his son's condo.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

State ethics laws say that a public official has a conflict if his or her property comes within 500 feet of a project the official will be scrutinizing and voting on.

Conservatively measuring from the furthest corners of each property, Google Earth puts both the proposed restaurant and SRO within 500 feet.

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles–based Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the state's Political Reform Act, said a public official could face $5,000 in civil penalties for each conflict-of-interest violation. But it's not common for the chronically under-resourced FPPC to go after local officials, he said.

Mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard wrote in an e-mail that "we take any allegations of conflicts of interest seriously" but added there is a disagreement over whether the "public generally" exception applied to the eastern neighborhoods and that the City Attorney's Office was seeking additional input from the FPPC.

As for the two projects he voted on near the condo, Antonini apparently told the mayor's office he had looked into whether 25 Lusk fell inside 500 feet. "Based on his understanding at the time," Ballard wrote, "they didn't."

That's a stretch, at best. The projects are in the same block. We walked them off and found that Antonini would have to be splitting hairs to argue that they are outside the boundary — and even in that case, it would be only by a few feet. The rusty red paint job, black trim, and stylish, outsize windows of 200 Townsend are easily viewable from the backside of 25 Lusk.

"If there is a legitimate argument that they did fall within the 500-foot radius, this should be clarified," Ballard stated.

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