Newly elected Tulare City Councilman Steve Harrell resigned his secondary position as a director of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) effective January 31.
Resignation Avoids Possible Interest Conflict
The date of Harrell’s resignation matches that of a letter protesting his service on two boards from a Visalia-based attorney, who alleges holding both offices concurrently presents possible illegal conflict of interest. The resignation prevents a possible lawsuit to force Harrell’s removal. Legal experts familiar with the situation say there should be no or very little fallout for TLHCD, and none at all for the city of Tulare.
Prior to the announcement of his resignation via a letter from the TLHCD’s attorneys, Harrell declined to give an opinion on the matter.
“I can’t comment on it,” he said. “It’s now with the counsel for the district.”
Harrell could not be immediately reached for additional comment after news of his resignation became public.
Attorney General’s Opinion
Harrell and the TLHCD were alerted to the possibility that a conflict of interest existed in a letter from Visalia attorney Maggie Melo. The letter was delivered to the TLHCD on January 31, also the effective date of Harrell’s resignation from the TLHCD board.
In the letter, Melo cited an Office of the Attorney General opinion regarding a similar case of another California elected official who held two seats at the same time. The opinion, Melo says, also applies in Harrell’s case.
“In that opinion, there was a question asked by the attorney general whether a member of the Southern Mono Health Care District could also serve on the (city) council,” Melo said. “No, he could not.”
During his campaign for city council, Harrell said he conferred with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) regarding the legality of holding both offices simultaneously and received their OK. Melo counters that the FPPC only oversees financial conflicts, and does not have authority in a matter such as this individual case.
“The FPPC doesn’t have jurisdiction,” she said.
Harrell Resigns Reluctantly
Earlier this week, it was not clear how Harrell intended to address the objection to his holding both elected positions. On Monday, February 1, Harrell was considering his options, according to TLHCD Board President Xavier Avila, who also acted as campaign manager for Harrell’s city council campaign run.
“I had a chat with Steve this morning. I also had a texting chat with the attorney who sent him the letter,” Avila said. “My opinion is the opinion (cited by Melo) that lists where a city council member sat on a hospital board, that may not apply in Steve’s case. We’ll see. The dynamic might be different.”
Apparently not different enough. The resignation eliminates all possibility of a conflict, however it was not Harrell’s original intent. Moving quickly to avoid impropriety would also appear to be typical behavior of Harrell. Avila says Harrell specifically tried to avoid this eventuality.
“I served with him for four years now,” Avila said of Harrell. “He is the most honorable person with the most integrity in my life. He did a good-faith effort to find out if there was a conflict.”
No Fallout for City
Tulare City Attorney Mario Zamora says there should be no consequences, negative or otherwise, for Tulare.
“It won’t really affect the city too much,” he said. “The way that doctrine works–if it applies–the old position gets vacated. It would only affect his old position.”
That could mean when Harrell was sworn in as a member of the Tulare City Council, he also automatically vacated his seat on the TLHCD.
“You’d have to ask a judge at the Superior Court,” Zamora said. “The (attorney general) opinions are not binding. The big deal is if the duties significantly overlap. You don’t want conflict.”
Yet Melo maintains the AG’s opinion and the statues it cites leave no room for doubt.
“The law is very clear when it comes to what makes someone incompatible, that makes their loyalties split,” she said.
No Current City-TLHCD Crossover
Zamora said the only recent business involving both the city and the TLHCD was a loan the city extended to the district as it attempted to reorganize itself and reopen the city’s only hospital. The loan has already been satisfied.
“Other than that I can’t remember anything that involves the two entities,” Zamora said.
Melo believes Harrell holding both seats at once will also not be a problem for the TLHCD.
“By my reading of the statute, the decisions he has made when he was impermissibly on the board, they don’t have to be undone,” she said. “There has been no move to fill that position, so there he sits, and that necessitated sending the letter.”
Meanwhile, the TLHCD is now short one director. Avila said the board will appoint a replacement following a recruitment and interview process.
“We’ll probably announce something here pretty soon,” he said. “I know we have a special meeting next week.”
Ironically, it was the same midterm replacement process that made both Harrell and Avila directors for the TLHCD.
“That’s actually how Steve and I originally got on the board,” he said.
Both have since been re-elected to full terms.