Like most accountants in the city of Turner, Paul Vasquez kept a keen eye on the local economy. When it became evident that Putnam Industries, a large local employer, would be expanding its headquarters and adding a new manufacturing facility, Vasquez, who was also a council member, decided to invest in real estate. After earning his broker's license, Vasquez purchased two single-family homes, then heard of a small apartment complex near the edge of town that was on the market. He invited his brother and cousin to join him in purchasing the property with the hopes of assembling adjacent lots as they became available.
City Manager Daniel Brinkman learned of the partnership over coffee in the city hall cafeteria. The planning director asked casually what plans the city might have for the north side of town, saying that a council member had purchased a complex and had been asking staff for advice on nearby vacant properties. Reminding him that staff doesn't provide investment advice, Brinkman asked to be kept apprised of any future inquiries.
Two months later, Vasquez was unanimously chosen by his colleagues to serve as mayor. The one-year appointment to the largely ceremonial post was especially significant, as he had been passed over the previous year after he had lost his composure at several council meetings, berating the city manager and city attorney. The night he was sworn in, he thanked the council for their confidence and pledged to take a higher profile role than previous mayors. "I vow to work tirelessly for the citizens of Turner. And I'll make sure the city staff does things the right way." Brinkman was alarmed by the comment and the next morning instructed department heads to advise him immediately if Vasquez approached them directly.
Within weeks, Vasquez began a series of phone calls and meetings with planning and public works staffs, at first asking generally about economic development, then about properties on the north side of the city, finally turning to more specific questions about lot lines, zoning restrictions, and potential developers. The director of planning notified the city manager, saying, "The mayor seems to be throwing his weight around. My staff is totally intimidated by the tone he's taking. He's even asking staff to change recommendations for the upcoming Planning Commission hearing."
Brinkman consulted with city attorney Peter Moore, who met with the mayor to outline the protocol for elected officials when dealing with staff. Moore shared the League of California Cities materials about conflicts of interest and strongly suggested the mayor avoid future direct contact with staff and recuse himself should the council vote on proposals near his property.
At the next council meeting Vasquez blasted Brinkman for trying to micromanage the city council, saying the city attorney was the hammer the bureaucrats used to squash council members who don't tow the line. "This city manager doesn't want me to ask questions. He doesn't want me to show leadership. He's trying to shut me up because I've got a better vision for our city than he does."
1. Has Vasquez gone too far in his dealings with the city staff? If so, where did he cross the line?
2. As one of the other council members, what should you do at the council meeting after Vasquez finished his comment?
This case has been prepared by Judy Nadler, Senior Fellow in Government Ethics, as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate effective or ineffective handling of a governmental situation.
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