Modesto city councilman Marsh will step aside on annexations

Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh said he won't take part in council decisions related to annexations until a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission is resolved.

A prominent advocate for controlled growth, Marsh said the state agency notified him in September of a complaint regarding his votes in July in support of putting advisory ballot measures before voters that could have led to annexations and development. Voters rejected all five Measure M advisory measures on the November ballot.

Because of a follow-up letter from the FPPC two weeks ago, Marsh decided to recuse himself from last week's council decision to annex 30 acres for business park development on Kiernan Avenue.

He plans to steer clear of other related decisions out of caution, he said.

"The letter said the agency needed to interview me about the complaint," Marsh said Tuesday. "Until I get a decision (from the FPPC), I don't feel I can vote on any of these properties that were part of the Measure M votes.

"I think it is a totally spurious complaint," he added, "but that doesn't stop someone from filing a complaint."

Marsh owns 14 residential parcels in northeast Modesto. Some parties, including the Building Industry Association of Central California, have questioned his participation in growth-related council decisions. Marsh took the lead in 2002 in preparing 49 acres around his home for residential development near Enochs High School.

An FPPC official confirmed Tuesday that the agency was investigating the complaint but declined to discuss the details. A building association official said the industry group did not file the complaint.

Marsh supported putting the advisory measures on the ballot, which asked Modesto residents to vote for or against extending sewer lines to five growth areas totaling 2,980 acres.

Most of the land is designated for business park and industrial development, although two areas included housing.

Marsh said he didn't stand to gain financially from the proposed sewer extensions. None of the growth areas included his property in Village I, and the Measure M votes are advisory, he said.

At the July 7, 2009, council meeting, City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood advised Marsh to step down from the growth votes because of a potential conflict of interest related to his developable land.

Alcala Wood urged Marsh to abstain "out of an abundance of caution," citing an advisory letter from the FPPC.

The state agency in April 2009 had advised Marsh to abstain from voting on a proposed farmland preservation ordinance because the measure could restrict the city's amount of developable land and theoretically increase the value of his 14-lot subdivision.

Marsh said he disregarded the city attorney's advice on the belief the FPPC letter didn't apply to council decisions to put growth areas on the ballot.

The councilman said Tuesday that he has asked the FPPC for a copy of the complaint but has not received it.

Steve Madison, chief executive of the building association, said the group did ask the city attorney in 2008 about Marsh's potential financial conflict with the farmland preservation ordinance. Alcala Wood, in turn, sought advice from the FPPC.

But the association did not contact the FPPC regarding Marsh's participation in the July council meeting, Madison said, adding he didn't see how Marsh had a conflict of interest.

"I'm not a lawyer," he said. "But I would think the only way he had a conflict is if he was voting on his own property. And I don't think that was the case."

Under state law, public officials are supposed to step down if they are likely to get a financial benefit from a government decision. Violation of the rules can result in fines and other penalties.

Marsh said he didn't take part in last week's decision on the Kiernan annexation because he mistakenly thought it was subject to one of the November advisory votes. In truth, the land is part of the Kiernan Business Park, which was grouped with four growth areas rejected by voters in 1997.

The city allowed development in those areas, including Kaiser hospital and projects in the Carver-Bangs, Pelandale-Snyder and Kiernan-McHenry areas.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.