Does anybody care that the SLO County Board of Supervisors has chosen to ignore and bury a scandal brought to light by the county grand jury? It’s a scandal involving an "unacceptable probability of bias" in the decision making process by an unnamed county planning commissioner, with charges of bias that were reiterated in the grand jury’s report by senior management staff of the county planning department.
Let me be perfectly clear. Although the grand jury never actually named the specific planning commissioner who is the subject of the report, I am not alone in my opinion that the commissioner they investigated is Sarah Christie, and I will accordingly make reference to her throughout this commentary. For corroboration, see the video record of the May 8, 2008 Planning Commission hearing during which Christie admitted having initiated the contact with the State Fish and Game representative that is the primary subject of this grand jury report.
A grand jury is an apolitical watchdog appointed to monitor local government and investigate complaints of wrongdoing. Their investigations and witnesses are kept secret and they only file reports on items that warrant further consideration and action by elected officials who are responsible for the areas addressed. Grand jury members are appointed by and report to a judge. Their terms of service are for one year. The fact that Sarah Christie has been singled out by more than one grand jury in the past couple of years indicates something is awry!
Having said that, it is unconscionable that the board of supervisors did not air the most recent grand jury report in a full public hearing, but instead buried their court mandated response on their consent calendar with a cavalier dismissal of the jury’s most important findings.
The grand jury was deliberate in their use of words in their report as they took specific language from the law that served to demonstrate that Christie raised a legitimate concern of a probability of bias. Planning commissioners while hearing cases are supposed to be as neutral as a judge in a courtroom. They are supposed to decide cases based upon what is being presented before them. The issue here is due process. Our Constitution guarantees that citizens will not be deprived of due process by government officials: What that means is they will get a fair hearing by neutral, unbiased decision makers who have no axe to grind in the matter.
Understand that the grand jury is a civil, not a criminal, grand jury and neither is it a court. The jury does not issue verdicts of guilt or innocence, but instead issues findings and recommendations for public agencies to remedy problems involving people and procedures. I read the report and conclude that Sarah Christie is not neutral and she is biased.
She is very much involved in activist circles and uses and abuses her role as a county planning commissioner to further her activist aims. Christie was singled out by the grand jury because she in essence called in an air strike in her war against project applicants that has jeopardized more than one project before the commission. Sarah Christie helped to organize opposition to projects instead of being a non-involved reviewer of the facts in the cases before her. Again, she did this in more than one instance and has been written up by more than one grand jury—enough already!
An example cited by the grand jury involved Christie using her connections to call the California Department of Fish and Game to get a letter submitted to the record that would negatively affect the outcome of the hearing process. The grand jury observed that this letter would never have been submitted had it not been for Christie’s role as an environmentalist. Lobbying Fish and Game to weigh in on a project would be something we could expect from her brother, who is an activist with the Sierra Club. But Christie is being paid by taxpayers and entrusted by the public to sit in quasi-judicial proceedings as a neutral and unbiased adjudicator of facts on the record.
Based upon the findings of the grand jury, it is my opinion that it would be in the best interest of the public and the staff of the county planning department that Sarah Christie be dismissed from the planning commission and be forced to resume her activist role on her own dime from the other side of the dais. Unfortunately, Supervisor Patterson, who appointed her, continues to provide political cover for her at the expense of the interests of his own constituents and the integrity of the public hearing process.
Inexplicably, the remaining board members seem recalcitrant to see that justice is done with respect to this scandal as they could choose to remove Christie themselves. Encourage the county supervisors to preserve the integrity of the hearing process and the rights of applicants to have fair hearings free from bias.
Andy Caldwell is the executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) of San Luis Obispo County. He also hosts the Andy Caldwell talk radio show Monday-Friday on AM1440, which airs from 3-5 pm. Send comments via the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.