A state government watchdog is investigating whether three members of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors violated the California Political Reform Act when they cast votes supporting a farmland preservation policy last year.
The Fair Political Practices Commission is reviewing votes by Supervisors Jim DeMartini, Jeff Grover and Tom Mayfield, FPPC spokesman Roman Porter confirmed.
Each of the supervisors owns farmland and supported a December vote that requires home builders to mitigate for the loss of acres zoned for agricultural use by buying similar land and placing it in a conservation easement.
The Central California Building Industry Association, which filed the complaint that prompted the investigation, contends that the supervisors' property constitutes a financial interest because the ag mitigation policy could drive up the value of their land.
That stake should have precluded them from voting on the policy under state law, the BIA argues.
"Ag land is a very powerful industry in our county, but I don't think it's above the law," said Bill Zoslocki, who led the building association during its assessment of the ag policy.
The two supervisors who do not own farmland, Bill O'Brien and Dick Monteith, voted against the ag policy.
Supervisors told they could vote
The county counsel's office advised DeMartini, Grover and Mayfield that they could vote because the ag policy was a general one that would not affect them more than any other county resident.
"Just because I'm a farmer I can't vote? That's ridiculous," Mayfield said, adding that he had not heard about the investigation until The Bee called.
"We're just trying to save a certain amount of farmland. I'm not trying to raise the price," he said.
DeMartini owns more than 1,200 acres between Ceres and Patterson. Mayfield has 288. Grover has 13, but the BIA alleges that he has another conflict because his company does business with other farm-related businesses.
DeMartini and Grover could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
County Counsel John Doring said his office researched whether the votes would have been a conflict of interest and contacted the FPPC for an outside opinion before the vote took place.
"We concluded there was not a conflict of interest," he said.
The FPPC complaint is a second front in the BIA's efforts to repeal the farmland mitigation requirement. It is suing the county in Stanislaus County Supe-rior Court.
Doring said the case has a hearing set for June 18, when a judge will consider the county's motion to dismiss parts of the lawsuit.
Porter said the FPPC does not have a timeline for the investigation, but he said that any enforcement actions that result from the complaint would be aired at public meetings. Violating the Political Reform Act could lead to fines of as much as $5,000.
BIA cites lack of hearings
The BIA's complaint centers on questions about the supervisors' financial interests, but its members also raise concerns about what they interpret as a lack of public hearings about the ag mitigation policy.
They contend that they were presented with a draft of the policy just days before an advisory committee approved it in October. It then went on to the board vote two months later and was modified during the meeting by Grover to exempt business development.
Mayfield scoffed at the suggestion that the county did not vet the policy enough, noting that it had been in the works for more than a year before it was adopted.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.