Newly elected City Councilman Joe Muratore has yet to cast a vote on the council, but with deep ties to local real estate, he's identified two housing developments he won't vote on because of possible conflicts of interest.
Muratore, 31, will be sworn in today. He's co-owner of Sentinel Rock Realty Trust, a commercial real estate asset management firm.
Some have criticized Muratore's links to Modesto's real estate community. One of his opponents in the council race, Robert Stanford, accused Muratore of being a "shill" for developers.
But Muratore calls his background in real estate an asset.
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"If you wanted to, you could try to spin this as me being some nefarious businessman, but these things that are conflicts are also the things that make me well-qualified to tackle the problems of our city," he said. "I've learned a lot from doing these things. I've navigated city channels before, I know where the problems are, and I know how to fix them."
But that background also means Muratore won't be allowed to vote on some developments that he's helped push forward, directly or indirectly. State law prohibits council members from voting on matters from which they could benefit financially.
Muratore said he'll sit out votes on a condominium project at 10th and H streets and Archway Commons, an affordable housing project at Carver Road and Ninth Street. Muratore has worked for the developers of both projects.
Muratore was, until December 2008, a vice president at Centerra Capital, a Modesto-based real estate investment management company. Centerra's chief executive officer, Paul Draper, is part of a team of developers that's backing the condo project at 10th and H streets. The City Council last week approved a zoning change to move the project forward. At some point, the project will need approvals from the city's redevelopment agency, whose members are the City Council.
Muratore said he plans to step down when that vote happens, even though it's been more than a year since he worked at Centerra.
"To the extent that there's an appearance of a conflict, I plan to recuse myself," he said. "I'm not going to vote on anything where there is the appearance of a conflict."
Muratore said he'll also sit out votes on Archway Commons, the 150-unit apartment building planned for lower-income families. Muratore's company, Sentinel Rock, did consulting work for EAH Housing, the nonprofit developer behind Archway Commons. Sentinel Rock scouted locations for the project and helped EAH prepare its application to the city, Muratore said.
Muratore's work for EAH and Centerra has cropped up as a potential conflict of interest before. When he applied for a seat on the city's Planning Commission a few years ago, he was rejected because of his connections to the developers, said outgoing Councilwoman Janice Keating.
Dealings with Hawn
More recently, some have questioned Muratore's association with Councilman Brad Hawn.
Hawn has been doing unpaid consulting work for Valley Energy Partners LLC, a new venture involving Muratore and real estate investor Stephen Endsley. The group wants to get into the business of putting solar panels on commercial buildings, Muratore said.
A business relationship between two council members doesn't necessarily violate conflict of interest laws, said Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state political watchdog agency.
Porter said he couldn't comment specifically on Modesto. But generally, Porter said, "state law requires the disclosure of an official's economic interests and prevents them from making decisions that benefit them financially. State law doesn't have prohibitions on what types of economic interests they can have."
City Council members and candidates are required to file yearly statements that list their financial ties in Modesto, including property, investments and income they earn from companies that do business in the city.
Muratore's statement, filed in August, listed his connections with Centerra and EAH. He also listed two houses, one that's his residence on Encina Avenue and one that's a rental property on Palisade Avenue.
Muratore said he met with City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood before he ran for City Council to discuss possible conflicts. Council members can seek advice from Wood or the FPPC if they're not sure whether they should vote on something.
"(Muratore) was very careful on conflict of interest issues and I expect him to continue to do so," Wood said. "He seems pretty sharp on being aware of these issues coming up."
In April, the FPPC advised Councilman Garrad Marsh to sit out votes on a proposed farmland preservation ordinance. The FPPC contended that Marsh had a conflict of interest because he is a developer who plans to build a 14-lot subdivision in northeast Modesto. The council hasn't taken action on the ordinance.
Three months later, Wood advised Marsh to step down on a vote about whether to put four growth-related questions before voters. Marsh ignored Wood's advice, saying the vote probably wouldn't affect his property.