Redlands Pact To Educate Staff At University Creates Conflict

The Redlands City Council this week approved having the City of Redlands enter into a so-called “strategic partner agreement” with the University of Redlands that would potentially involve city employees in a virtually intractable conflict of interest involving costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to ensure that project proposals such as expansions and building construction be properly inspected and the applications for those projects be properly processed.
On Tuesday night, May 7, the city council with Mayor Paul Foster absent and Councilwoman Denise Davis abstaining approved what acting City Manager Janice McConnell called “a strategic partner agreement between the City of Redlands and the University of Redlands offering discounted degree programs to city employees and their qualified dependents.”
McConnell recommended that the city enter into the arrangement with the university, providing the rationale that “The city highly encourages employees to continue their education and obtain degrees through institutions of higher education. The University of Redlands offers a strategic partner agreement that enables employees to attend the university and have an opportunity to receive a discount on their tuition provided that they meet the program’s ongoing requirements.”
McConnell added that “Through the program, the university offers discounted tuition, customized education, training opportunities, special events, and other considerations to benefit-eligible employees, spouses/domestic partners, and dependents.”
McConnell said, “Participants in the program shall receive the tuition discount of 15 percent for programs offered at any of the Redlands regional campuses and 10 percent for programs offered by the School of Education programs and School of Continuing Studies certificates and workshops. Within the city, this program may provide employees with the ability to acquire knowledge and skills that may further their personal career aspirations and their work for the city.”
While some level of benefit might accrue to the city from the program, potentially enhancing the quality of work and skill level of the city employees who take advantage of it, it will also represent a benefit to the employees themselves. Therein lies a certain legal difficulty.
According to the California Fair Political Practices Association: “Local elected officers, candidates for local elective office, local officials specified in Government Code Section 87200, and judicial candidates may not accept gifts from any single source totaling more than $500 in a calendar year. (Section 89503.) Employees of a local government agency who are designated in the agency’s conflict of interest code may not accept gifts from any single source totaling more than $500 in a calendar year if the employee is required to report receiving income or gifts from that source on his or her statement of economic interests (Form 700). (Section 89503(c).)”
Tuition at the university currently stands at $46,570 annually.
Thus, participating in the strategic partnership would put a city employee in a state of conflict if he or she were called upon to act in a regulatory capacity with regard to any project involving the university or if he or she were to oversee any coordination between the city and the university such as that involving the two entities and the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority in University Village, a multiphase project that will entail more than 350 residential units, 75,000 square feet of office space and another 70,000 square feet of retail and hotels built on 25 acres of university owned land adjacent to the train station over the next decade. Moreover, there are a multitude of places where the city’s regulatory function has some bearing on what the university is doing or might do with regard to land use, planning, construction, expansion, use of infrastructure, use of services, waivers from regulations and so forth. The same conflict would result if any city employee who had participated in the program were called upon in the course of his or her capacity as a city employee to engage in or oversee coordination between the city and the university relating to any endeavor.
Beyond that, the university has on its board of trustees a handful of individuals who are associated with entities or companies, such as Majestic Realty, subject to the city’s regulatory, policy or project approval or entitlement authority. This presents a further circumstance that might entail a compromising of the standards the city would apply, such that favorable treatment might be accorded to some that is not uniformly available to all.
Because of such considerations, some residents believe it might not be a good idea for the university to be providing favorable treatment to city employees that is distinct from what others might be eligible to receive.
The Sentinel inquired of Redlands City Attorney Dan McHugh and Redlands’ official spokesman, Carl Baker, as to whether they perceived any potential for conflict in the strategic partner agreement, and whether there was concern at City Hall that the university might use its extension of largesse or privilege to extract favors from the city in its dealings with city employees participating in the educational program the university is offering. McHugh and Baker were also queried as to whether they thought the arrangement might result in the companies associated with the university’s board members which are subject to the city’s policy or project approval or entitlement authority being accorded favorable treatment that is not uniformly available to all.
Baker said the city had placed responsibility for avoiding any such conflicts squarely on the shoulders of the city employees who might avail themselves of the university’s generous offer.
“In response to your questions, I refer you to the penultimate paragraph in the staff report accompanying this item, and particularly the last two sentences,” Baker told the Sentinel.
That passage in the staff report states, “As a part of participating in this special tuition program, staff performed due diligence relating to the discount offered to public employees. The state Fair Political Practices Commission, in adopting regulations to implement the Political Reform Act, has informed the city that the discounted tuition that it is being offered by University of Redlands may constitute a ‘gift’ for purposes of the annual reporting obligations of city employees who are designated as Form 700 filers pursuant to the city’s conflict of interest code. Employees are solely responsible for determining their individual legal obligations with respect to the Fair Political Practices Commission’s annual reporting requirements and compliance with the Fair Political Practices Commission’s limitations on the dollar amount of gifts acceptable from any one source in a 12-month period. Acceptance of discounted tuition may have legal consequences for such employees, and the city makes no representation with respect to, nor shall have any liability for, an employee’s participation in this discounted tuition program.”
Neither Baker nor McHugh spoke to the cost that would accrue to the city if, by complying with Fair Political Practices Commission limits, city employees recused themselves from dealing with any assignments relating to the university, necessitating that the city retain consultants to augment the staff and carry out the regulatory or project evaluation or inspection services needed for the university’s projects or undertakings.
-Mark Gutglueck

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