With less than a week until absentee ballots go out, someone is trying to turn up the heat under the hottest Bakersfield City Council race.
An anonymous flier that’s been making the rounds for at least a week accuses Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell of having a conflict of interest with respect to the 24th Street widening project, which he’s opposed since first campaigning for the seat in 2012.
From approving city purchases of land needed to widen the highway to votes on its environmental report, Maxwell has voted on aspects of the project at least a dozen times. His wife also gave around $500 to Citizens in 2014, he said on the dais last year.
The alleged problem? Maxwell lives four houses north of 24th Street. His property is 254 feet from 24th, according to the Kern County Assessor’s office.
If the project goes forward as currently planned, Bakersfield intends to widen 24th on the north side, in part by demolishing the two corner houses on his street — making his the third house away.
But neither he nor City Attorney Ginny Gennaro think he’s guilty of a conflict of interest.
“I indicated to him he needed to go out and get an opinion on whether this project would have any financial impact on his property. He came back and said it would not. Neither up nor down,” Gennaro said.
The flier cites a 6-year-old state regulation that a spokesman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission said has since changed.
Apparently taken from a 2010 Attorney General’s publication highlighting conflict of interest laws, the passage said a governmental decision directly involves a public official’s interest in real property “if the official’s property is located within a 500-foot radius of the subject property.”
“It’s basically, what they’re quoting off of is old stuff. Our new stuff basically says 500 feet is a guideline, not a rule, but it’s still a significant guideline,” said FPPC Communications Director Jay Wierenga, noting the state regulation was updated within the last two years.
He declined to comment on Maxwell’s situation but said the rule had been updated out of concerns that 500 feet was too narrow a specification — and in some situations people living closer might not have a conflict of interest, while others farther away still might.
“Legally speaking, it is still a regulation. The onus is on a public official to do all the steps necessary when there is a conflict of interest that is foreseeable,” Wierenga added.
Gennaro said she advised Maxwell after he was elected to “get an appraiser that would appraise his property and render an opinion that this project would have no impact whatsoever” on his property.
Maxwell said he contacted longtime Bakersfield Realtor Gary Crabtree, who has appraised other houses for the company representing Bakersfield as it buys land to widen 24th Street and to build the Centennial Corridor freeway segment.
“I talked to the city attorney right after I talked to Mr. Crabtree and he said that would not affect the value of my property,” Maxwell said.
“He’s a well-known expert in his field and so there wasn’t any need for me to question it any further,” Gennaro said.
Crabtree disagreed and said emphatically he’d never spoken to the councilman nor done a written appraisal.
“I don’t recall, to the best of my knowledge, ever having any conversations with either the city attorney or Terry Maxwell about a conflict of interest with respect to his house,” Crabtree said.
Maxwell said he definitely spoke to the appraiser and was given the opinion during a conversation not long after he was elected in November 2012.
Gennaro said she has offered advice to council members on conflict of interest scenarios but doesn’t recall whether Maxwell asked her for advice — and declined to speculate on whether she would have offered advice if he had.
Gennaro said Maxwell told her verbally about the conversation with Crabtree.
“When your boss tells you something, why wouldn’t you be satisfied? I don’t feel that my responsibilities needed to go any further than that,” she said.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear who has been distributing the flier. Maxwell’s opponent, Andrae Gonzales, a trustee for the Bakersfield City School District, said he’s not behind it. In fact, he said he hasn’t even seen it.