By JOE TASH
A proposal by Del Mar fair board member Tom Chino to foster transparency on the panel took a sideways turn at the board’s Tuesday meeting, when fellow board members and a deputy attorney general instead questioned whether Chino’s relationship with a local attorney amounts to a conflict of interest.
Chino, who was one of five new board members appointed last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown, proposed that the board pass a policy that all committee meetings – and meetings with state and federal representatives – be held in publicly noticed open session.
In a series of emails between Chino, other board members and officials with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which operates the state-owned Del Mar fairgrounds, Chino noted that he was concerned a proposed series of meetings between a state official and board members would be held in private. The emails were contained in the agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting.
However, an email from Chino, which may have been inadvertently sent to other district officials, caused board members to question whether Chino has a conflict of interest due to his relationship with North County attorney Dwight Worden.
“Dwight, Her coming down, irritates me and makes me think about your more aggressive approach,” said the email, which was signed “Tom.”
Agricultural district officials said Tuesday that Worden’s former law firm, Worden Williams, is representing the opposing side in a lawsuit over the district’s environmental impact report for its master plan update.
Deputy Attorney General Deborah Fletcher, who represents the agricultural district, told the board that Worden should have filed a “written waiver of potential conflict,” because of his relationship with Chino, a board member for the district, which is being sued.
Fletcher told the board that she is “quite angry” about the potential conflict. “I find it quite disturbing any law firm would advise any board member on their duties when they are representing an adverse party,” Fletcher said.
“I’m concerned about a potential conflict,” Frederick Schenk, another of the five new board members, said after the meeting. “The email suggests they’re having conversations on issues related to the DAA.”
Schenk, who is also an attorney, said during the meeting he would be concerned that things discussed in closed session could be divulged to the opposing side in a lawsuit, and he sought Chino’s assurance that would not be the case.
Chino said Worden is a long-time friend and his personal attorney, but that he never discusses any litigation or confidential issues with his friend, only public policy issues.
In an interview after the meeting, Chino said, “We never discuss anything that was in executive session. I seek his advice on policy issues but nothing to do with litigation or employees.”
Worden, who sat in the audience during the meeting but did not speak, said afterward, “They’re trying to manufacture a conflict of interest that doesn’t exist.”
Worden said he remains “of counsel” to the law firm, but hasn’t actively practiced for 10 years, and has never discussed the environmental lawsuit against the district either with Chino or his former law colleagues. “I have not been involved in the lawsuit in any way.”
Therefore, Worden said, he is not required to make a written notification of the potential conflict.
Both Worden and Chino said the “more aggressive approach” mentioned in Chino’s email referred to bringing a policy before the board that would require all meetings with state and federal officials, along with all board committee meetings, be held in public.
Under state law, all meetings involving three or more fair board members must be held in public, but meetings of two board members can take place in private.
During the discussion of Chino’s proposal, board members said they were concerned it could hamper their work, because it might preclude such things as an informal chat between two board members after a meeting, or a trip by board members to meet with officials in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.
Chino’s original concern stemmed from a request by Rebecca Desmond of the state Division of Fairs and Expositions, who proposed meeting individually with new board members to provide an orientation. Chino said he believed such meetings should be held in public, so that members of the public could ask questions along with board members.
Board member David Watson, who serves on a recently formed transparency committee with board member Lisa Barkett, said he would prefer to let the new committee do its work to promote openness at the district.
After the board’s discussion, Chino offered a motion to adopt his open-meeting proposal, but it died for lack of a second.