By Linda Sutter – February 16, 2020
On January 29, 2020, a complaint to the Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) was lodged against current Board of Supervisors, Bob Berkowitz, Lori Cowan, and Chris Howard for several regulation violations regarding the Sister City of Japan and other violations.
In order to understand the seriousness of how the FPPC views violations of their regulations one must understand how the FPPC views the elected.
The FPPC believes making decisions in the Public’s Interest is a key responsibility of Public Service. In other words, a public official owes a duty of loyalty and honesty to the public. That duty is violated when a public official makes a decision that is not motivated by the public interests but instead of his or her own personal interests.
So is the case for not only the Del Norte Board of Supervisors, but the City Council members, involving Darrin Short, Heidi Kime, and Blake Inscore. All of these people listed above may have betrayed public trust by neglecting to follow the Fair Political Practice Regulations thereby causing a misuse of public money.
The rule is that a Public Official will not make, participate in, or influence a governmental decision that will have a material financial effect on the official. The Official must disqualify himself or herself from voting on the entire process of leading up to a governmental decision. In other words must recuse themselves from any and all process if they have received gifts, and cannot be counted as part of a quorum.
The Board of Supervisors did not take that into account when three of the supervisors had been gifted a trip to Rikuzentakata, Japan. To make matters worse, Chris Howard utilized the discounted travel agency through the County for purchasing his wife, Lisa, a ticket to Rikuzentakata, Japan. Granted, Chris Howard paid with his own credit card but because discounted prices are not available to public, he violated a regulation. Additionally, Lori Cowan, who led the public to believe out of the goodness of her heart she provided a meal to the Japanese Delegates while they visited at her Northwest Grill Restaurant. She was reimbursed for that dinner by the city taxpayers for $324.00. Conflict of interest? I don’t know, but it was reported to FPPC.
On November 12, 2019 the Board of Supervisors voted to give the Chamber of Commerce an additional $10,000.00 for the sister city relationship story to be viewed during the 2020 Olympics. Is it a violation of the Fair Political Practices Act? I don’t know, we will see. Why would it be a violation?
Because it took a ⅘ vote to pass the agenda item. Two people who voted on it were Bob Berkowitz and Chris howard. They should have been disqualified from voting on it due to the gifts of $2940.00 they received from the Japanese. Lori Cowan had recused herself.
The 5 page complaint was sent along with 30 pages of exhibits.
In May 2014 a similar case was presented for advice by silicon valley attorneys. The chinese had an interest in Silicon Valley and had invited 12 mayors to 5 cities in China. The Chinese were to pay 5000.00 per mayor for travel expenses. The reason they were going to China was to develop a foundation and policies for high technical interests. The FPPC after looking at the itinerary and what would be discussed stated this would be ok but the Mayors would have to recuse themselves from any future agenda items regarding decisions on China.
Keep in mind when I requested documents I also requested any and all correspondence from the County Attorney as well as the City Attorney to the FPPC regarding the Sister City Relationship. None was conducted by either entity. Basically, the city council and the Board of Supervisors flew by the seat of their pants in decision making. They all had signed their ethics certificates.
The city council complaint which will be sent on Monday February 17, 2020, consists of 10 separate incidences with approximately 31 violations of FPPC regulations. There are approximately 200 pages within the 11 exhibits provided to the FPPC.
Mayor Inscore, Pro Tem Mayor Heidi Kime, and Council Member Darrin Short all received gifts defined by the FPPC. Heidi Kime and Mayor Inscore received a total value of $5,440.00 in travel from the Sister City, Whereas Darrin Short Claimed $700.00 on his Economic Interest Statement. After receiving these gifts all three went on to create a budget of $12,000.00 for traveling back and forth to the Sister City and “for the Sister City,” according to Mayor Inscore. Eventually, the $12,000.00 budget grew to $19,500.00. This was all for “consideration for receiving $39,445.00 from US Embassy Japan Grant.”
Additionally, when the three council people who had received gifts from Japan, they should have been disqualified from voting on any issue regarding the sister city, and had they obeyed the Fair Political Practice Act regulations there would have been no quorum to make decisions to create a sister city budget.
Later, Mayor Inscore became the biggest abuser of taxpayer money inappropriately. On September 4, 2019, agenda item number 12, the city council decided to pass a new limitation. They increased the amount of travel to $500.00 or more before they would need to bring it before the council for approval. All members thought it was a fabulous idea and this agenda item did indeed pass. However, on November 3-5, 2019, Mayor Inscore took a trip to Hollywood for a “Japan” annual conference.
The total amount spent on that trip was $1,140.00. It was never brought up at any public meeting nor was it approved by the city council. This is an abuse by an elected Mayor. Additionally, it served no public purpose and no public benefit. And in violation of open meeting laws.
And while the Mayor was away, Pro Tem Mayor Heidi Kime, with Councilmen Wright and Fallman passed a resolution to donate $15,000.00 to the Chamber of Commerce for the sister city relationship during the 2020 Olympics. Again, Ms. Kime was disqualified from voting on this matter because of her conflict of interest and receiving a total gift value of $5,440.00 from Rikuzentakata Japan within 1 year. This means there was not a quorum to vote on this matter.
On another occurrence Mayor Inscore went to San Francisco on August 23, 2018. The city paid for two adults in his hotel room. The other adult was unidentified and against not only the FPPC but the City’s very own conflict of interest code. Who was the unidentified person who shared his room? Well certainly not Chris Howard because he went to the same reception, and turned in his hotel room for reimbursement. By the way this reception they attended served no governmental purpose or public benefit.
And on yet another alleged sister city event which took place in Sacramento between Rikuzentakata Mayor Toba, Chris Howard, Senator McGuire and Assembly person Wood, Mayor Inscore utilized public money under the guise of a pastor and not in his official capacity of Mayor. Is it a violation of FPPC? Don’t know, but it makes common sense that the city does not pay for the benefit of public members but does pay for people in their official capacity. Topic of discussion included a video from Japan disaster, a video on Wildlife fire in California, gift exchange, lunch, and vip tour of our capital.
The best part about all of this is if the FPPC decides to prosecute these elected the taxpayers will not have to pay for their representation. They will have to seek their own attorney’s at their own expense and not at the expense of the public.
FPPC violations usually will receive monetary penalties, but can be removed from office without ever being able to run for any office and or jail time.