Stanislaus County supervisors who own farmland did not break a conflict-of-interest law when they voted on a controversial farmland preservation requirement more than two years ago, a state investigation concludes.
The decision gives the county a victory in an ongoing battle with home builders who say the rule, which remains in legal limbo, unfairly penalizes them.
Supervisors Jeff Grover, Jim DeMartini and the late Tom Mayfield were unlikely to profit from their December 2007 approval of a new agricultural policy, wrote Sukhi K. Brar, a state Fair Political Practices Practices Commission attorney, in a letter last week to a county attorney.
"The evidence does not support prosecution," Brar wrote.
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The Building Industry Association of Central California asked the state to investigate more than two years ago, saying the supervisors should not have voted on a policy requiring that developers preserve an equal amount of farmland when building new homes.
The rule could drive up the value of farmland owned by the three supervisors, each of whom voted in favor, home builders contended, while two supervisors owning no rural land voted against it.
The association also sued to block the rule, and won in June 2009. But the county appealed and both sides are waiting for a court date to be scheduled.
Steve Madison, chief executive of the association, said, "We respect the decision of the FPPC." The group feels validated, he said, because an investigator privately confirmed home builders' suspicion that supervisors were advised to vote based on "a flawed analysis."
The county counsel's office employed a "public generally" exception, reasoning that supervisors would not profit any more than other residents from a general policy affecting the county as a whole. In the recent decision, Brar did not weigh that contention but found that supervisors were eligible because their votes could not be linked to direct financial gain.
Madison said the Building Industry Association, with investigative authority, might have arrived at the same conclusion. "All we could do was issue the complaint," he said.
County Counsel John Doering said he is "happy with the result. I'm not happy we had to go through all this folderol. That means nonsense."
In substance, the complaint against the supervisors resembles a concern the BIA has raised about Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh. Marsh, one of the city's most outspoken slow-growth proponents, owns developable land. The BIA has argued that his decisions on land use could impact the value of that property.
Marsh is abstaining from land-use decisions until the FPPC concludes an investigation into whether his votes represent a conflict of interest. The BIA did not file that complaint, but it has made its concerns known to the city attorney.
Last week's FPPC decision also clears DeMartini from additional allegations that a ranch bought his votes on other matters.
The Building Industry Association contended that Men- ghetti Farms paid DeMartini, a grower, $10,000 in 2006, and he voted on an easement for the farm in March 2008. Brar noted that conflict-of-interest law applies to votes cast within 12 months of receiving income from a source.
The association also charged that DeMartini accepted a $400 political contribution from Menghetti Properties in August 2007, then influenced an agricultural advisory board voting on the same farmland preservation rule in October 2007, before it went to supervisors. But DeMartini was not a voting member of the advisory board and Menghetti entities were not party to the proceeding, Brar found.
DeMartini said he has had business dealings with the Menghettis, none tied to political favors.
"These snakes from the building association filed three complaints against me," DeMartini said Thursday. "I can't believe how over the top they are.
"It's senseless. The building association is such a hostile group," DeMartini continued. "They're very good at turning what should be their friends into their enemies. If they don't get 100 percent of what they want, they file a conflict-of-interest complaint or they sue you."
Grover said the Building Industry Association asked him to leave the group after his vote favoring farmland preservation.
"They felt that was diametrically opposed to where they wanted to go," Grover said.
Mayfield died in December 2008. His successor on the board, Vito Chiesa, also farms and formerly was president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.
Supervisor Bill O'Brien owned no farmland when he voted against the farmland rule, but has since acquired some and hopes to plant later this year. He said farmland is protected when communities set growth boundaries and stick to them.
The board recently confronted similar conflict questions when an issue over big-rig trucks parking on rural parcels came up. They postponed a discussion in May to keep from going astray of the law, then in June ordered more work on a proposed ordinance after all were cleared to vote except for Chiesa.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.