Billboard lobbyist advised both sides of Placentia advertising deal

Posted by on Jul 23, 2013 in Blog, California Politics | 0 comments

Billboard lobbyist advised both sides of Placentia advertising deal

The Placentia city administrator at the center of a controversial outdoor advertising proposal admits the city was already in discussions with Lamar Advertising Company when the city brought on the company’s lobbyist as an outside consultant to the city.

Placentia City Administrator Troy Butzlaff told CalWatchdog.com that he doesn’t see anything wrong with Lamar’s lobbyist Ken Spiker serving as a volunteer advisor to determine whether the city was getting a fair deal from none other than Lamar Advertising.

Placentia City Seal“Although I was aware of Mr. Spiker’s relationship to the outdoor advertising industry, including his role as a lobbyist for Lamar Outdoor, as a volunteer advisor answering our questions and making a few phone calls to outdoor advertising company I did not see any cause for concern,” Butzlaff wrote in an email to CalWatchdog.com.

Butzlaff says he asked Spiker to help in the city’s process “to determine whether the City was getting the best possible deal.” He tasked the lobbyist with obtaining additional proposals from other advertising companies. Following Spiker’s input, the city recommended a contract with Lamar.

Violation of city’s code of ethics

The involvement of a lobbyist with a financial interest in the outcome advising both sides of the bidding process could violate the city’s ethics code. The city’s “Code of Core Values and Ethics” requires that its representatives “make impartial decisions, free of bribes, unlawful gifts, narrow political interests, and financial and other personal interests that impair my independence of judgment or action.”

In addition to the city’s ethics code, Placentia officials adhere to the International City/County Management Association Code of Ethics, which advises members to “avoid participating in matters that create the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

According to the city’s website, the city administrator also claims to follow the Athenian Oath code as another layer of ethical guidance. “The City Administrator is also a strong believer in the tenets of the Athenian Oath which was administered to young men in ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago,” the city’s website states. “We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in those above us who are prone to annul or set them at naught.”

Placentia: “Decline to provide a written response on the issues of transparency & ethics”

When asked to address those inherent contradictions, Butzlaff balked, “I respectfully decline to provide a written response on the issues of transparency and ethics you raise especially when it appears by the tone of your questions that you have already formed an opinion as to what you perceive the City has done wrong without the benefit of my response.”

Placentia’s city administrator says that, rather than simply accept Lamar’s original proposal, he asked Lamar’s lobbyist to serve as an outside consultant and solicit proposals from other companies. With the help of Spiker, the city received two additional proposals from CBS Outdoor and Regency Outdoor. The city council reviewed all three proposals, ultimately selecting Lamar as the top choice during a closed session meeting.

Lamar, as first reported by the Voice of OC, has paid Spiker “$180,000 over the past three years and is also set to pay him another $300,000 or so to help procure permit approvals.”

Butzlaff says that the financial connections did not affect the city’s decision-making. Rather, the city chose Lamar’s proposal because it proposed placement on four sites and agreed to make “a financial contribution to the local auto dealer to replace their existing message board.”

That raises an additional ethical question: Why was the city’s decision based on a financial contribution to a private third party?

Placentia failed to disclose lobbyist’s name in staff report

In addition to potential conflict of interest issues, the billboard proposal has been criticized for its lack of transparency. The city repeatedly claims on its website to be committed to transparency. “The Placentia City Council and City Staff are strongly committed to maintaining the highest level of transparency in government,” the city’s website states.

Yet, Spiker’s name and financial connections to Lamar Advertising are not disclosed in the city’s staff report on the issue or its webpage about the proposed “Outdoor Advertising Display Program.” His involvement in the process came to light following an investigation by the Voice of OC’s Nick Gerda.

Butzlaff denies that Spiker’s name was intentionally omitted from the report.

“Your question regarding why Mr. Spiker’s name was not mentioned in the staff report to the City’s Planning Commission is a bit offense [sic] and implies impropriety, incompetence or perhaps both,” the Placentia city administrator wrote to CalWatchdog.com “Just because the staff member who wrote the staff report did not properly identify the name of the consultant should not be automatically construed to mean that the City was trying to conceal Mr. Spiker’s identity from the Planning Commission or public.”

Billboard contract to close budget gap

In June, the Placentia Planning Commission first considered changes to the city’s zoning rules to allow outdoor advertising displays. The move was intended to generate much-needed revenue for the city, which is facing a $1.5 million budget deficit. Lamar Advertising, according to the Orange County Register, was set to “cut a check to the city for at least $725,000 this year.”

Before the deal could be finalized, the Voice of OC’s Nick Gerda uncovered the lobbyist’s dual role in the bidding process. The contract is now on hold, following a contentious city council meeting on July 16.

This piece was originally featured at CalWatchdog.com.

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