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Council vote may represent conflict of interest policy

SAN MARCOS — The San Marcos City Council recently made a seemingly innocuous vote to change its election policy, but the vote actually represents a major shift in statewide conflict of interest policy that prosecutors once used in a now-scuttled prosecution of former Tri-City Healthcare District board member Kathleen Sterling.

The San Marcos City Council unanimously adopted a change in its municipal code to allow council members who have contributed to their own political campaigns to vote on their appointments to internal boards and regionally appointed boards.

On the surface, it seems like a procedural change, but the city staff report on the agenda item reveals it is the tip of a much larger issue tackled at the state level.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces the state’s conflict of interest codes as outlined in the Political Reform Act, recently changed its regulations to permit council members to vote on their appointments to internal commissions and committees, as well as regional appointments that carry a stipend, such as to the North County Transit District or San Diego Association of Governments governing boards.

Previously, these actions were illegal, though state and local regulators rarely enforced them. In the case of the City of Carlsbad, council members regularly voted on their own appointments, dismissing a 2003 FPPC advice letter on the subject matter as just that — advice.

However, in at least one case, county prosecutors used the arcane regulation to prosecute Kathleen Sterling criminally for opposing her own censure, which in doing so she voted to preserve her $100-per-meeting stipends that the board stripped from her.

After two years, however, prosecutors dropped their case against Sterling after they said they could not make the case against her.

With the state changes, prosecutions such as Sterling’s will not occur.

The San Marcos Council’s action also allows for elected officials to vote for their reappointment when they are running unopposed.