In the eight years we’ve been asking questions about the ethical conduct of dozens of government officials and the influence of lobbyists and corporate managers, we’ve never come across a response quite like the one we received on October 30, 2017, from City of Ridgecrest’s outside attorney, Lloyd Pilchen.
We had asked Mr. Pilchen about a tip from a reader who expressed concern about a possible financial conflict of interest by Ridgecrest, California, Mayor Breeden and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mower. Both supported on October 4 a resolution to block homeowners’ access to the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program.
PACE is a popular program that offers affordable, up-front financing for energy efficiency, water conservation, renewable energy and seismic improvements that are paid back through property tax assessments. The potential conflict of interest arises from the fact that Mayor Breeden voted to kill PACE, while at the same time owning a local newspaper that takes significant advertising dollars from local realtors who have aggressively opposed PACE.
Checks and Balances Project has been investigating attempts by powerful lobbyists for the mortgage bankers and realtors to kill the PACE program since May 2017. In August, 2017, we filed filed twin lawsuits against the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Bakersfield City Council to get to the bottom of questions about how lobbyists got local officials to kill PACE in both jurisdictions.
Now, it’s important to understand that the City of Ridgecrest (population of 27,616, 2010 census) has no city attorney. After numerous phone calls, including to the Ridgecrest human resources department, we eventually learned that city farms out the city attorney function to Westlake Village-based Keith Lemieux, now a partner in the firm of Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill.
Mr. Lemieux apparently assigned the task of responding to Checks and Balances Project’s letter of inquiry to his colleague, Lloyd Pilchen, who wrote:
“The conflict of interest rules involve considerations which the City Attorney’s Office may analyze and advise the City on. But such analysis is protected from disclosure from the attorney-client privilege. In this case, we find nothing that rises to the level of a conflict of interest. C&BP is free to seek its own legal advice on this issue, and we thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
If we understand correctly, Mr. Pilchen is saying his law firm “may analyze and advise” conflict of interest allegations against the city of Ridgecrest. However, they won’t provide that analysis to us – or presumably the citizens of Ridgecrest – because the “analysis is protected from disclosure.” Besides, there’s “nothing” there.
Questions Deserving Answers
That’s unfortunate. The tip we received claimed that Mayor Breeden is an officer and director of Ridgecrest’s local advertising newspaper, The Swap Sheet, Inc. The reader added that this company is recognized as an associate member of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors. The Swap Sheet, Inc. appears to receive a major portion of its funding through realtor advertising on its website.
We were also told that Mayor Pro Tem Mower’s eldest son, James Mower, works as a realtor for Coldwell Banker’s office in Ridgecrest; and that several Coldwell Banker realtors in Ridgecrest, including James Mower himself, have vocally opposed the continuation of the PACE program in the city.
You can read our entire letter to the Ridgecrest (contract) City Attorney HERE.
Citizens who have had their access to PACE financing shut off deserve to know the details of potential conflicts, not claims of privilege and secrecy.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.
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