Amid ongoing FPPC investigation, Councilman Derek Reeve recommends City Council remove architect Rob Williams from the Planning Commission due to “appearance of conflict”

Rob Williams. File Photo
Planning Commissioner Rob Williams. File Photo

By Allison Jarrell

There’s only one “action item” listed on the San Juan Capistrano City Council’s agenda tonight, and it’s sure to be mired in controversy. Councilman Derek Reeve is asking his fellow Council members to vote to remove Rob Williams from the city’s Planning Commission, effective immediately.

According to city staff, the only recent City Council removal of a commissioner was in 2011, when the Youth Advisory Board’s Adult Advisor Norma Aronne was removed unanimously due to findings in her background check. Aronne had initially resigned, but shortly thereafter withdrew her resignation, forcing the council to decide whether to remove her from the position.

Reeve wrote in tonight’s agenda report that he feels Williams, the former chair of the commission, should be removed from the commission due to his unwillingness to recuse himself from reviewing the city’s Historic Town Center Master Plan and the Hotel Capistrano by Kimpton.

San Juan Capistrano City Councilman Derek Reeve. Courtesy of the city of San Juan Capistrano
City Councilman Derek Reeve. Photo: Courtesy

“The update of the Historic Town Center Master Plan (HTC) and the two proposed hotel projects, Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano and Hotel Capistrano by Kimpton, are priority issues facing San Juan Capistrano,” Reeve wrote. “It is critically important that these vital projects be reviewed in a process that is above reproach or allegation of bias.”

The allegation of bias to which Reeve refers is centered around Williams’ personal and fiduciary relationship to landowner and developer Bill Griffith—who owns the local Rivendell Land Company—and Rivendell consultant Dan Friess. Williams was subcontracted by Friess for architectural work on two buildings that are now owned by Rivendell: the Egan House and the clock tower.

On Dec. 11, 2015, the City Council voted to exclude Williams from reviewing any issues within the Historic Town Center Master Plan related to the Egan House and Esslinger property, which is also owned by Griffith and is separated from the Egan House property by a plot of land owned by Steve Oedekerk, who has a hotel project in planning known as the Hotel Capistrano by Kimpton. Griffith is currently moving forward with his own hotel project across from the Mission, known as Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Reeve wrote that while there doesn’t “appear to be a legal conflict related to the Political Reform Act,” Williams “rightfully recused himself” from participating in Inn at the Mission discussions “due to his personal and financial relationships with the proponents” of that hotel and to “avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

“Despite these appropriate actions, the continued review by Mr. Williams of the HTC as a whole and the Hotel Capistrano by Kimpton hotel project continue to create the appearance of conflict,” Reeve wrote. “This appearance of conflict results from allegations of financial conflict, Mr. Williams’ alleged actions related to his opposition to the previous hotel project on the same site as the current Hotel Capistrano by Kimpton proposal, his personal relationship with the proponents of the Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano project and other concerns of potential conflict or bias for or against the projects and their proponents.”

Reeve said that because Williams refuses to recuse himself from reviewing the HTC and Hotel Capistrano, “the integrity of the review of these projects will be called into question and expose the city to legal challenge no matter what the ultimate decision is on these projects.

“It is imperative that the process be open, fair and without any appearance of impropriety or bias,” Reeve wrote.

Reeve concluded that his request is not intended to imply that Williams cannot be “fair and unbiased in his review,” but rather that “his refusal to recuse himself is in direct conflict with the best interest of the residents he serves.

“This action shall protect the integrity of the process, raise the review of these matters above any potential challenge related to bias or conflict and demonstrate to the community our commitment to ensuring a fair and unbiased review of these important matters,” Reeve wrote.

Reeve’s request to remove Williams from the Planning Commission comes amid an ongoing Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) investigation into Williams. In February, the FPPC sent a letter to Williams alerting him that he was to be fined $400 for failing to report income from his company, Studio 6 Architects, on his Statements of Economic Interest (Form 700). In order to provide transparency and accountability, all elected and appointed officials and public employees who are involved with government decisions are required to file a Form 700 to report their investments, business positions and sources of income.

Williams could have faced a fine up to $5,000 for the violation; however, he initially qualified for a “streamlined program,” often offered to lower-level violations, with a settlement of $400. Williams said he paid the fine and amended his Form 700.

However, during the FPPC’s hearing on April 21, the item regarding Williams’ enforcement agreement was pulled from the commission’s consent calendar due to a new complaint received from Oedekerk, which details financial connections between Griffith, Friess and Williams. (Read the full complaint here: RW_FPPC Complaint_Oedekerk_4-15-16_Redacted)

FPPC Communications Director Jay Wierenga confirmed that the “investigation is open and ongoing” and “a case is not closed until the full commission votes on the outcome proposed by FPPC Enforcement.”

“Any time enforcement receives any new facts or information that is pertinent and/or relevant to any case that is still open, it has the prerogative and the Chief of Enforcement has the prosecutorial discretion to obviously look at it and make a determination about a still open case,” Wierenga said in an email.

The City Council’s public meeting tonight—Tuesday, May 3—begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall, located at 32400 Paseo Adelanto. All are welcome to attend. To view the full agenda, click here.

You can also watch online at www.sanjuancapistrano.org by clicking “City Council Live Video.” Or just click here.

For more background on the FPPC’s investigation of Williams, read The Capistrano Dispatch’s March 22 story: www.thecapistranodispatch.com/planning-commissioner-investigated-by-fppc-fined-for-failing-to-report-income.

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