When the Orange County Board of Supervisors considers Tuesday whether to block a senior living center planned for North Tustin by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, Chairman Todd Spitzer plans to vote even though he has earned tens of thousands as a consultant for an investment firm owned by an outspoken critic of the project.
In addition to his consulting work for James Ron King, who lives near the project and raises money for the group that sued to stop it, Spitzer has earned money as a member of the board of directors for a real estate firm connected to King.
Officials with the state Fair Political Practices Commission have authorized Spitzer to vote Tuesday, after Spitzer asked them to reconsider a previous decision that he shouldn’t.
But a review of the documents he submitted in support shows that while Spitzer told FPPC lawyers about his financial relationship with King he didn’t tell them King is vice chairman of fundraising for the Foothills Communities Association, which sued to stop the homes. The commission considers only the information it is given and does no outside research.
Spitzer said he’s long opposed projects that conflict with the North Tustin Specific Plan, a 1982 document that dictates what can be built in the unincorporated area known as North Tustin, and where. He noted that he’s voted against grocery stores proposed for the corner of Newport Avenue and 17th Street for that reason and said he’s received thousands of petitions from North Tustin residents opposed to the zone change.
“The community is overwhelmingly against this project,” Spitzer wrote in an email.
But supporters of the long-debated and much-litigated plan to build the Springs at Bethsaida – a faith-based center on 7.2 acres with 153 homes for senior citizens, including retired priests – say it’s the other way around: Spitzer is using his power as chairman of the Board of Supervisors to help King overturn a development he’s fought for years.
“It’s dumbfounding,” said Tustin resident Earl Prescott, whose parents donated the land to the Catholic Church in 1956.
Bill Campbell – Spitzer’s predecessor on the Board of Supervisors and a backer of the senior center – said he was stunned to learn Spitzer is paid by King, whom he described as one of the project’s biggest opponents and the financier of much the opposition.
“I must tell you I’m shocked by it,” he said. “I would not vote if I were him.”
Bob Stern, a government ethics expert and former counsel to the FPPC, said he thinks Spitzer should have disclosed to the FPPC King’s fight against the project rather than describing him as a nearby property owner.
But Stern isn’t sure that having that information would have changed the FPPC ruling. He noted that Spitzer initiated the zoning reversal months before he sought advice.
“I always advise people, ‘If the appearance looks bad, don’t do it,’” Stern said. “But sometimes people feel very strongly about something.”
Spitzer said he knows King is involved in the group but he doesn’t know to what extent.
“As to impacting his property, his opinion for purposes of the FPPC opinion is irrelevant. He could believe his property value would be impacted; it would not matter,” Spitzer wrote. “The FPPC examined the documents submitted by the project applicant to conduct its analysis.”
Spitzer also said he’s repeatedly tried to find a compromise with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which owns the land. That includes a recent offer to support a single-story facility – the current project is two stories – with a church in the middle that could exceed height restrictions, he said. But the church declined.
“To amend the specific plan for private financial gain … is deeply offensive to the community,” Spitzer said in his email. “Take away the project developer’s name and ask: could any other private developer reverse decades of legal precedent?”
Catholic Church officials are objecting to the move, saying it involves “fairness, decency, and a respect for the public process.’
“The Project’s approvals were the culmination of years of outreach, compromise, and numerous acts of good faith on the part of the Diocese,” according to a letter from Susan Hori, a lawyer with the Costa Mesa-based firm Manett, Phelps & Phillips, to supervisors.
When the diocese proposed building a permanent home for elderly priests and other retirees on the site in 2007, it found a strong ally in Campbell.
Campbell and his wife, Mary, are devout Catholics who donate thousands of dollars annually to the church and related charities. She spent at least five years on the Orange Catholic Foundation’s board of directors, and his faith is so widely known that an advertisement for his retirement roast in 2011 described him as “a leader in the Catholic Church.”
In an interview this week, Campbell said he supported the project after an environmental assessment concluded it would have affected the neighborhood much less than single-family homes, a school or a church.
Campbell said he’s proud of his Catholicism but asked himself: “Am I doing this because the Catholic Church wants it, or am I doing it because it’s good for the community?”
He concluded the demand for the project, coupled with the minimal effect on the neighborhood, warranted his support.
“If there’s ever a place that needs a senior living facility, it’s North Tustin,” Campbell said.
Campbell was chairman when the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on March 15, 2011, to rezone the land following hours of testimony from nearly 75 people. But construction never began.
The Foothills Communities Association sued a month later, claiming the project “will directly and adversely affect their health and living environment.” Campbell left office the following January, after term limits prevented him from seeking re-election.
A Superior Court judge sided with project opponents, but the Fourth District Appellate Court ruled in January 2014 that the county acted lawfully. Association lawyers planned new litigation, but the case is on hold as supervisors consider reversing the 2011 change.
Church officials say neither Spitzer nor anyone else notified them that supervisors would reconsider their project’s key approval in January. They saw it on an agenda for the meeting and soon expressed their shock.
The Planning Commission reconsidered the zoning change last month – like the board, commissioners unanimously approved it in 2011 – and again recommended supervisors approve it. Commissioner Jeff McCormick noted the county paid to defend the original zoning change through an appellate court review.
“It would seem like it would be a very hard argument to go back and argue against something you just won,” McCormick said.
When Spitzer introduced the reversal in January, he decried the church’s influence. “Do we have a right to represent the will of our constituents, or do we represent the will of one developer who had a tremendous amount of political clout?” he said. The motion carried, 5-0, setting up Tuesday’s final vote.
King did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. His son, Paul King, responded to emailed questions by saying that company policy prohibited him from answering most of them.
King has paid Spitzer between $10,001 and $100,000 per year as a consultant for King’s securities brokerage firm, Centaurus Financial, since at least 2012, according to annual financial disclosure documents Spitzer is required to file as a supervisor. Spitzer didn’t provide his exact salary figures.
Spitzer describes his work for King as social media consulting and succession planning. A video available online shows Spitzer leading a seminar on social media in Hawaii for Centaurus in January 2012. Spitzer said he developed platforms that explain how brokerage firms can utilize social media.
Spitzer also earned at least $10,000 from King’s company through his law firm in 2012. And since 2013 he has earned between $10,001 and $100,000 annually as a member of the board of directors for Strategic Realty Trust, which buys and sells shopping centers, of which King and Centaurus are major shareholders.
King described Spitzer as an “excellent mediator” in a letter Centaurus sent to shareholders last year announcing Spitzer’s appointment. King also touted Spitzer’s positions as a member of the Board of Supervisors and related government agencies.
“He is considered to be an expert at navigating business matters involving government oversight and regulatory authority, assisting in real estate acquisition, restructuring and sales,” according to the announcement.
Spitzer also has accepted more than $10,000 in campaign donations from Centaurus employees since 2011.
The money flows the other way, too. Spitzer has donated at least $3,750 from his Central Committee account to two of Kings’ charities – the Shamrock Rescue Foundation, a dog rescue, and the Joyful Foundation, which supplies blankets to hospitals.
HOME HURT, OR NOT?
Spitzer’s lawyer, Gary Schons of the San Diego firm Best, Best and Krieger, said nothing in documents of King’s extensive work against the development when he sought the FPPC’s advice. Instead, documents show, Schons focused on arguments also used by project supporters: that the retirement center will not affect the surrounding neighborhood, including King’s home, which is less than a mile from the site.
“We’re to some extent at the mercy of the public official to be honest in the first place and to be forthright in the facts and information they provide,” said FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga. “It’s not the final answer, but it does go a long way toward giving cover to a public official.”
When FPPC officials initially said Spitzer shouldn’t vote because traffic from the project could hurt King’s home, Schons pointed to studies that said otherwise. That prompted the FPPC to reverse course and authorize Spitzer to vote, saying the zone change “will not have a reasonably foreseeable effect on Mr. King’s property.”
But the argument from Spitzer that the project will not affect King’s property contradicts what King has said for years. That includes a June 2010 letter to county officials that describes increased traffic on already heavily traveled roads, including Hewes Avenue, where his home is located.
“This would have an negative impact on the residential homes served by these streets,” King wrote, calling the issue a matter of “common sense.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 949-492-5122. Twitter: @meghanncuniff.