Conklin’s integrity remains a concern |

Conklin’s integrity remains a concern

The Union continues to be concerned about the unrepentant attitude of Bruce Conklin. The District 3 candidate for Nevada County supervisor not only continues to defend the conflict of interests surrounding his departure from the board following his defeat for re-election in 2002, but at a debate on Thursday he declined to join his two opponents in pledging to disavow similar actions if elected this year.

In an editorial in March 2003, we said there was a bad odor surrounding the Nevada County Land Trust’s hiring of Conklin to manage $508,000 that the trust had been given – at Conklin’s urging – to restore the North Star House. In the 20 months since, that odor of impropriety has become even stronger.

There is no doubt that saving the North Star House is a worthy goal. It was designed in 1904 for the superintendent of the North Star Mine by Julia Morgan, California’s first female architect and later the designer of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon and San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.

However, there are more than a few questions that remain to be answered by Conklin and the Land Trust about the methods used to achieve their goals:

• In an interview with The Union’s Editorial Board, published on Thursday, Conklin denied that the decision was made at the eleventh hour, saying that the money from the Dryden Wilson estate – earmarked for recreational and open space use – had been tied up in court for two years and the board had “decided not to decide for a while, because there was no emergency, no reason to decide.”

If that’s the case, why rush the decision on Dec. 24, 2002 – Christmas Eve – when one supervisor (Sue Horne) could not attend, and two of the other four were leaving office within days? Why not leave the decision for the new board a few weeks later? The answer, it seems obvious, is that the new board may not have agreed that the Land Trust was the best place for the lion’s share of the Wilson money.

Despite denials by the Land Trust that the Christmas Eve session was not a special meeting, the Board of Supervisors early in 2002 had decided not to meet on Dec. 24, for obvious reasons. On Dec. 3, the other outgoing supervisor, Elizabeth Martin, moved to put Christmas Eve back on the calendar. An examination of the Christmas Eve minutes show the bulk of the time was spent on the Land Trust, with all the motions or seconds by Conklin and Martin – the two lame ducks.

• At Thursday’s debate, Conklin vehemently objected to a question about his “engineering” the deal with the Land Trust. However, in The Union roundtable he acknowledged having worked to save the North Star House for years, and he was the one who authored the request for the Dryden Wilson funding for it in a proposal to the board dated Dec. 2, 2002.

The next day, The Union has learned, Conklin and Cheryl Belcher, executive director of the Land Trust, met during the lunch break of the Board of Supervisors’ meeting. Belcher said Thursday that it was a social lunch, with six people, and was not a meeting about the Wilson bequest.

That afternoon, Conklin’s proposal (which did not specifically mention the Land Trust) was presented. Supervisor Sue Horne recalls that the North Star House pot was fattened by an additional $100,000 in Wilson funds earmarked to defray expenses for a park district election. The vote was 4-1 to finance the election from the General Fund. (Horne voted no).

It also was at that session that Martin moved to put the Christmas Eve meeting back on the schedule, since time was needed for the Land Trust board to formally accept the funds, and to work with the county staff to develop specific wording for a contract for the board to formally approve.

• Conklin argues that the charge of conflict of interests is irrelevant, since the funding would have passed without his vote. In that case, why did he not abstain from voting? We suspect it was an overconfidence that no one would question the ethics of his actions, and because he did not foresee being a candidate in 2004 after the man who defeated him by 19 votes- Drew Bedwell – resigned for health reasons.

• Conklin has continued to say that the Land Trust hired him as project manager because he was the best qualified of 14 applicants and four finalists, and went through a rigorous interview process after he left office. He and the trust deny there were any discussions between them about a job before the trust started their search early in 2003. However, trust President Ron Mathis said at that time that Conklin could be an applicant and that “I hope he would submit a proposal.”

In fact, the proposal that Conklin wrote on Dec. 2 while still a supervisor included a detailed job description for the North Star House project manager – the job he eventually won.

• Conklin told The Union, “The idea that the Land Trust could obtain a political advantage by hiring an ex-supervisor from the losing party is kind of backwards.” That’s the case only if one believes the advantage was gained after Conklin left office, rather than before.

In fact, both Conklin and the trust feared they were skating close to the ethical and legal edge. The Land Trust sought two legal opinions before hiring the ex-supervisor, and Conklin said he explored all the state laws regarding conflict of interests.

As it happens, while California law places restrictions on state officials after they leave office, there are none for county officials. Nevertheless, as The Union argued editorially at the time, appearances of conflict of interests also erode citizen confidence in their government.

We understand that a number of Land Trust members were upset at the hire. One of them – contractor Bruce Ivy – called on the trust’s board to either give the Wilson money back to the county so that it could be distributed more fairly, or at least pledge not to use it for administrative costs, because of the “breach of trust with the community.”

Some on the Board of Supervisors shared this concern, and passed a “Revolving Door” law preventing former high-ranking county employees from lobbying for or working on grants or contracts that formerly fell under their purview.

• There have been various versions of how much Conklin earned as project manager before resigning last summer to run for office again. When the Land Trust started its search, president Mathis said the part-time job would pay $50,000 to $60,000 over two years. After Conklin was hired, Executive Director Belcher said the previous board had allocated $112,000 for 3,050 hours of work. But at this week’s debate, Conklin scoffed at that, saying he earned $36,000 “last year.”

Information received by The Union late Thursday from the Land Trust shows that Conklin received a total of $66,615 during his employment period, about 16 months.

A general report to the Board of Supervisors this summer showed that through June 2004, $74,161 had been spent for “North Star Project Management” and another $18,224 for “North Star Administration.” Out of $508,000, the trust reported that $280,657 has been spent for restoration of Julia Morgan’s house.

• There also is some question whether Conklin indeed was the right person for the job. A recent story in The Union told how a local group called the North Star Foundation, while praising the goal of protecting the house, feels the Land Trust has strayed from the accurate preservation of Morgan’s architectural vision. It says that replacement of the roof with cement tiles, the removal of large wooden columns, and other changes were done without a historic assessment, threatening the ability of the project to obtain donations and grants.

A number of architectural preservation experts support that view, including a Harvard professor who wrote, “It seems that most of the problems your group is facing are being caused by the project manager, who lacks the kind and quality of professional training and field experience needed to guide the restoration of such a special historic project.”

Belcher and Conklin seem to have given up on historical preservation of the house. Belcher said that the best the Land Trust can do is what she calls a “historic adaptive reuse restoration,” whatever that is.

Meanwhile, it is disturbing to note that even though the trust’s primary focus so far has been to protect the house from further deterioration and vandalism, it apparently doesn’t have enough Wilson money left to buy secure windows and doors to keep vandals out. Perhaps they can at least scrape up enough dough to buy paint to cover the obscenities remaining on the walls.

In any case, these questions raise serious doubts about the fitness of Bruce Conklin to be returned to the Board of Supervisors, certainly on the basis of questionable integrity alone. We urge him to recognize the appearance of an ethical lapse and pledge to be more sensitive if he is elected in 2004.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Horne said on Thursday that she plans to draw up to present to the Board of Supervisors a request for a complete accounting of the Wilson expenditures by the Land Trust.

We hope that everyone draws lessons from this episode about why open, ethical government processes are so important.

While they’re at it, perhaps the supervisors and the Land Trust can explore a new, more collaborative relationship that may help achieve the true historic preservation of the North Star House that so many would like to see.

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