State

Grand jury: Turlock Councilwoman didn't have conflict of interest

TURLOCK -- The Stanislaus County civil grand jury cleared Councilwoman Mary Jackson in a report issued Wednesday after she was accused of a conflict of interest for voting on a controversial piano bar project.

"It exonerates me," Jackson said Wednesday. "The perception of a conflict of interest was not the majority of Turlock citizens but a few people who are politically motivated. ... I will not be silenced from the job I was elected to do."

The grand jury said it could find no evidence of such a conflict after conducting interviews and reviewing confidential documents.

"Often the perception of wrong- doing is greater than the offense itself," the report said.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton told Jackson that she should recuse herself to avoid any potential conflict of interest from a vote to approve the permit for a Main Street piano bar in January.

"The Turlock City Councilmember should have recused herself to avoid any perception of wrongdoing," the report acknowledged.

But "(Jackson's) actions at no time compromised the good standing of the Turlock City or the City Council as a whole," the grand jury said.

A lawyer, who was a volunteer strategist on Jackson's 2008 campaign and donated $500, was the attorney for the Vintage Lounge project until two months before Jackson voted to deny the bar's permit.

Jackson voted against the permit because she objected to limitations on the operating hours, wanting the establishment to be allowed to stay open until 1 a.m. rather than close at midnight.

Jackson said she consulted with state authorities, including the at- torney general's office and the Fair Political Practices Commission, and was told she did not have a conflict of interest.

Since the highly contested November election, the Turlock City Council has been rife with personal tension.

"I'm very happy the grand jury has cleared Mary Jackson of any perceived wrongdoing," said Turlock Mayor John Lazar. "I believe this is very welcome news for the entire Turlock City Council."

Jackson filed a lawsuit in an attempt to find out who was responsible for automated calls impersonating her during the election. The lawsuit, alleging "unfair business practices" and seeking as much as $10,000 in damages and possibly more in punitive damages, is pending.

The civil grand jury investigates complaints from residents, civic groups, government employees and others about the operations of county and city governments and the conduct of their officers and employees.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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