Almanac

Schools - May 23, 2012

Was it a conflict of interest?

• School districts awarded contract to architect who was doing work on home of top official.

by Dave Boyce

Was it a conflict of interest for two school districts to award major contracts to an architectural firm that was also doing work on the home of a top official with those districts?

Prosecutors with the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office are investigating two major construction projects for the Woodside and Portola Valley school districts in which the boards chose CJW Architecture as project architect at the same time that CJW was remodeling the house of district official Tim Hanretty.

Carter Warr, the principal architect at CJW Architecture in Portola Valley, told the Almanac that prosecutors in February requested documents concerning: a $12 million rebuild of Woodside Elementary School during 2006-07, when Mr. Hanretty was the school district's chief financial officer; a $2 million installation of solar-panel arrays at Corte Madera and Ormondale schools in the Portola Valley School District in 2011, when Mr. Hanretty was that school district's superintendent and financial officer; and remodeling projects for the Hanretty home taking place concurrently with both school projects.

District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe confirmed the investigation in an email. "At this point, since the case is under investigation, all we are saying is that our investigation (is) into the conduct of Mr. Hanretty," he wrote. "Our rule is that we will confirm whether we are investigating a matter, but we do not go into details."

Mr. Hanretty resigned his Portola Valley post in January when allegations were made public of financial improprieties during his tenure in Woodside. Prosecutors have since charged him with three felonies, including misappropriation of government funds in connection with loans made to the Woodside district for more money than the school board authorized. A preliminary hearing is set for Thursday, May 24.

As for the concurrent work, it was "well known" to the boards of both districts that CJW was already engaged in residential work for Mr. Hanretty, Mr. Warr said. "It was fully disclosed," he said in an interview.

Mr. Warr and Mr. Hanretty are personal friends, said Michael Markowitz, Mr. Hanretty's defense attorney. The boards learned of the concurrent work when Mr. Hanretty disclosed the facts, but he "took no part in the decision making" in the boards' choosing an architect, Mr. Markowitz said.

Asked to comment, Portola Valley district board president Scott Parker, who came to the board in late 2009, disagreed. "I do not recall Mr. Hanretty sharing with the board that Mr. Warr was involved in his home's remodel," he said in an email. "Mr. Warr did not share this with the board."

The Almanac requested comment from Woodside Elementary board member Bettina Pike, who was on the board at the time of the decision to choose Mr. Warr as the architect of record for the school rebuilding project, but Ms. Pike had not responded by press time.

"There is no inherent legal problem" with concurrent work, said John Beiers, head of the county counsel's office, which represents public school districts in court. "Employees sometimes recommend vendors or consultants that they have personal, or professional experience with. ... It might raise questions for the board of the extent and basis of the relationship which could have some influence on whether a vendor is ultimately selected."

An employee runs afoul of conflict-of-interest regulations established by the Political Reform Act of 1974 only if the employee, through the making or influencing of a contract, realizes a personal financial benefit, Mr. Beiers said.

The basic guidelines on conflicts of interest, per government code section 18700, read as follows: "No public official at any level of state or local government may make, participate in making or in any way use or attempt to use his/her official position to influence a governmental decision in which he/she knows or has reason to know he/she has a disqualifying conflict of interest. A public official has a conflict of interest if the decision will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect on one or more of his/her economic interests, unless the public official can establish either: (1) that the effect is indistinguishable from the effect on the public generally, or (2) a public official's participation is legally required."

Tara Stock of the Fair Political Practices Committee declined to comment on a specific situation. But on its face, a generic situation like the one between Mr. Hanretty and Mr. Warr, including the full disclosures, did not seem problematic from the FPPC's point of view, she said.

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