Hinting at San Leandro scandal, council calls for ordinance to track lobbyists

Former San Leandro Councilmember Gordon Galvan and Davis Street Family Resource Center CEO Rose Padilla Johnson appeared to be the unsaid focus on Monday's discussion for a lobbyist registration ordinance in San Leandro

The public still does not know the entire contents of a San Leandro independent investigator’s report┬áthat questioned the credibility of claims by a local non-profit executive director of sexual harassment against San Leandro City Manager Chris Zapata. Only a 10-page summary was released by the city earlier this month.

However, a San Leandro City Council discussion Monday night, in which they ultimately directed staff to draft a lobbyist registration ordinance, contained a number of councilmembers repeatedly and obliquely referencing what appeared to be improper instances of lobbying by Davis Street Family Resource Center CEO Rose Padilla Johnson–Zapata’s accuser–a member of the Davis Street Board of Directors, Gordon Galvan; and former San Leandro Mayor Stephen Cassidy, now an attorney for the cannabis dispensary that is tied to Johnson Padilla and Galvan.

The sheer number of somewhat coded mentions Monday night of Padilla Johnson, Galvan, and Cassidy by councilmembers might suggest the full scope of the investigator’s report, due to be released sometime before July 31, may shine a light on their oast lobbying activities–first for procuring and paying back a $1.5 million loan to the city–and controversies that surround a conditional-use permit sought and received last year by a cannabis dispensary partnering with Padilla Johnson. The dispensary is indirectly linked to the Davis Street Family Resource Center. The dispensary is set to open in a set-aside area of the Davis Street non-profit’s building.

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Rose Padilla Johnson, CEO of San Leandro’s Davis Street Family Resource Center, and San Leandro City Manager Chris Zapata.

A majority of the council Monday night pointedly demanded a somewhat rare provision in the proposed ordinance that requires board members and executive directors of non-profits to register with the city as lobbyists. In most cities that have registration rules for paid lobbyists, those from non-profits are usually exempt.

Councilmember Corina Lopez gave perhaps the most overt hints Monday about potential lobbying impropriety. “I want to be sure that we have agility in language and that the language really thwarts some of the activity that we’ve been privy to, but it also doesn’t deny people to be advocates for those who don’t have a voice,” she said.

A lobbyist registration ordinance would generally require lobbyists to detail on a quarterly basis all contacts they have with city officials, including person-to-person contact, emails, texts, letters, and phone calls. Lopez urged that city officials also file their own reports independent of lobbyists.

An oral report offered by the City Attorney’s Office Monday night detailed commonalities between lobbyist registration ordinances in other cities. Among them, tying registration to individuals who are specifically paid to lobby on behalf of a group or entity, usually with a threshold of $250. But other councilmembers continually pressed on the issue of lobbying by non-profits.

Councilmember Benny Lee said he would support a blanket rule for lobbyists regardless of whether they are advocating for non-profits or the private sector. “If somebody is paid and they are lobbying on behalf of the non-profit, they should be considered lobbyist,” he said.

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San Leandro Councilmember Lee Thomas last February asked the council to direct staff to study a lobbyist registration ordinance.

The original advocate for a lobbyist registration ordinance in San Leandro was Councilmember Lee Thomas. Last February, Thomas’s referral for staff to begin studying the issue was approved, 6-1, by the council. He also pushed Monday for non-profits to register as lobbyists. “I believe non-profits need to be treated the same. There’s big money in non-profits and we need to treat them the same,” said Thomas.

“The reality is we need some transparency and citizens need to know who is talking to council. We have some great non-profits here, but once again, they’re in this game for financial gains to do the good work they actually do,” he said.

Sometime some of the past lobbying that has been done, or conversations that been done were maybe not what I would consider fair game.-San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter

Compliance with registration rules might fall on the City Clerk’s office. However, larger cities like Oakland, instead create public ethics commissions to enforce lobbying rules.

The council also appeared supportive of extending a “revolving-door ban” prohibiting former public officials and employees from lobbing the city until two years after leaving their position. Support for including lobbyist’s interactions with planning commission members was also apparent, especially since the board’s power may soon become more concentrated. A proposal to merge the planning commission and board of zoning adjustments appears eminent.

But, other reported intensive lobbying efforts in San Leandro were also noted. Without mentioning the name of former Mayor Cassidy, Lopez noted the behind-the-scenes public relations onslaught he performed last year with a series of blog and social media posts advocating for the Davis Street cannabis dispensary. Cassidy did not initially disclose that he was the firm’s legal counsel at the time.

“Some savvy folks who used the public domain to lobby the council. If they can’t do it directly, they do it through position pieces out in the public and without disclosing their conflict of interest or using their former title without divulging they are on payrolls,” said Lopez. It is not clear, however, how this particular ordinance could prohibit these types of efforts.

Councilmember Deborah Cox also posed a question intended to limit the amount of lobbying seen in her own district by a developer named Tom Silva, who sought to raise height limits for a proposed development in San Leandro. Silva is a member of the Rental Housing Association of Southern Alameda County and a member of the city’s rent review board.

“Sometime some of the past lobbying that has been done, or conversations that been done were maybe not what I would consider fair game,” said Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter. “I do think something is in order. I’m just not quite sure what that is yet.”

Meanwhile, the 10-page investigative report summary largely focused on Padilla Johnson’s lack of credibility in the eyes of Danville Attorney Karen Kramer. However, a 23-page letter distributed by Zapata last January shortly before Padilla Johnson made public her claims, in some ways, provides a rough outline of the types of intense backroom lobbying efforts that have occurred for years in San Leandro.

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