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Conflict avoidance Allison K. Sampite | Sat, Jan 22 2011 12:00 PM

In December 2010 newly sworn in Chula Vista City Attorney Glen Googins sent a letter to Councilwoman Patricia Aguilar advising her to abstain from participating in labor negotiations with the Chula Vista Police Officer's Association.

The reason: A potential conflict of interest.

Googins discussed Aguilar's potential conflict of interest with her prior to her swearing in Dec. 7.

Since then she has recused herself from matters relating to the police union and labor negotiations, Googins said.

Aguilar's son is Lt. Phil Collum, a Chula Vista police officer and spokesman for the police union.

The concern was raised by city officials and legal staff shortly after Aguilar won the seat in November's election.

Googins said that Aguilar's participation in negotiations does not violate a conflict of interest in regard to the state's government code or Political Reform Act, because she and Collum do not have financial ties.

However, the potential for conflict of interest falls under the "common law doctrine against conflicts of interest," which extends non-economic private and personal interests.

Googins found Aguilar has a bias under the "totality of the circumstances," which means as a whole, a conflict exists.

To avoid a conflict of interest in any given circumstance, council members should seek advice from the city attorney, even though reliance on the advice does not guarantee protection against actions from other governmental agencies, Googins said.

"That's one of the responsibilities of this office and every department, to help identify potential conflict of interests," Googins said.

According to Googins' research, Aguilar's conflict of interest is related to Collum's salary and benefits, which could be directly impacted by the outcome of ongoing negotiations between the city and police union.

Googins said if the common law doctrine was violated, a variety of sanctions could be applied, including removal from office for willful or corrupt misconduct.

"I want to make sure that when she (Aguilar) participates in a decision, that it does not have a conflict of interest," he said.

One councilman found himself in a similar situation years ago, but with different results.

When now Deputy Mayor Rudy Ramirez was elected to council in 2006, former city attorney Bart Miesfeld verbally discussed a potential conflict of interest with him.

While he served on council, his brother Alex was also a police officer.

"No opinion was rendered because there was no co-mingling of funds," Ramirez said. As a result, Ramirez was not asked to recuse himself. "If the conflict exists for Pat, why not for me too? he said. "There seems to be a bit of a double standard."

Ramirez said the elected attorney role creates a new political environment in which the lawyer operates.

"I think there is a reason to pause and consider any political implications," Ramirez said. "If somebody wanted to affect the outcome of a decision, changing the dynamics of the council could be a way to accomplish that."

Ramirez also said this should have been handled in a public manner where residents can listen, Googins could give his opinion and Aguilar could decide.

Former interim councilman Mitch Thompson said it's a sign of the times that everyone's become increasingly sensitive.

"The rule is now that if you're within 100 million miles of something, it's better to recuse yourself," he said.

Collum and Aguilar could not be reached in time for comment.

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