Attorney General Rules on Incompatible Offices Question
Our focus all week has been on the decision about where to start building HSR in the Central Valley – but there was another important piece of news this week. The Attorney General’s office issued an opinion on the charge that Curt Pringle and Richard Katz held “incompatible offices” by virtue of their position on local transportation agency boards and the California High Speed Rail Authority board. The AG’s office held that these were, in fact, incompatible offices under state law, that technically their first office (the local transportation board) was forefeited when they accepted the CHSRA board position, but that a member of the public would have to file a quo warranto complaint to remove either member from the incompatible office. Here’s the opinion:
So what does this mean in practice? Richard Katz already resigned from the CHSRA board, effective this past Wednesday. Curt Pringle did not run for re-election as mayor of Anaheim, so he will end his term on the OCTA board at the end of this month. My reading of this opinion is that Pringle would be able to continue serving on the CHSRA board if he chose – he did not attend yesterday’s board meeting – because the AG said that the first office – in Pringle’s case, the OCTA board – was forefeited and not the CHSRA board. Additionally, this does not appear to invalidate any decisions the CHSRA board made with either Pringle or Katz as members.
Of course, Pringle could choose to follow Katz and step down voluntarily. He has an incentive to do so – if he resigns before the end of the month, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be able to appoint his replacement, as he already will for Katz.
Personally, I do not believe Schwarzenegger should fill Katz’ vacancy, or a Pringle vacancy were one to arise. Arnold will be governor for less than a month – Californians elected Jerry Brown to be their new governor, and it is only right and sensible that Brown be able to fill any vacancies on the CHSRA board.
In a related story, anti-HSR reporter Tracy Wood at the Voice of OC site uncovered emails Pringle sent that were highly critical of HSR engineers:
California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Curt Pringle had no faith in the engineers responsible for designing and implementing the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles segment of the $43 billion statewide bullet train project, according to emails sent by Pringle in January that have been obtained by Voice of OC.
“I do not think that the engineers working on the Anaheim to LA segment are capable of doing the work,” Pringle wrote in a January 18 email to Mehdi Morshed, who at the time was chief executive of the Rail Authority.
“They seem to be so dense … they are not able of understanding the impacts of their words and actions. I sincerely do not know how they can work on a project of this size!”
The occasion for these emails was that engineers were not telling him what he wanted to hear about the location of the ARTIC station. The original plan was that HSR tracks would go over the 57 freeway. However, Caltrans ruled that out. A proposal to move ARTIC to the Angel Stadium parking lot was nixed by Pringle who predicted the Angels would cause a “whirlwind of anger.” So he proposed spending $200 million to tunnel the tracks to ARTIC – which upset anti-HSR Senator Alan Lowenthal and set a lot of this into motion.
In response, Morshed hinted at the “incompatible offices” issue:
The emails also raised a conflict-of-interest issue that the California Attorney General’s Office is expected to address soon. In his response to Pringle, Morshed began his email by writing, “in reading your email I had difficulty separating the message from the Mayor with that of the Chairman of the Authority.”
Interestingly, the emails also show that Pringle has been frustrated with the CHSRA’s public outreach, an area of constant criticism leveled at the Authority:
“I am preparing for the FIRST community meeting in my city on Wednesday,” Pringle wrote on Jan. 18. “How a project of this size could ever move this far without EVER talking to the public is inconceivable!”
Lots of people up and down the route would agree with this statement. Pringle told the Voice of OC that he felt outreach had improved, and let’s hope that the new members of the CHSRA board and CEO Roelof van Ark will make outreach a top priority.
Overall I’m not sure what this “incompatible offices” issue has accomplished. Some kind of reform of the CHSRA is probably going to happen anyway, and depending on the reform, it might be just what the project needs. However, instead of reform, we got a scandal that in the end may force two members off the board, but does nothing to actually improve project outreach or help get the project closer to completion.