A testy kerfuffle over alleged conflict of interest

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – A candidate for Fifth District supervisor has publicly accused a planning commissioner of having a conflict of interest, and has asked him to recuse himself from any discussions regarding the development of a commercial cannabis growing ordinance.

Steven Sungnome Madrone

Candidate Steven Madrone made the accusation against Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Ben Shepherd at the Oct. 25 meeting of the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee, which Shepherd chairs.

Shepherd has flatly denied that he has a conflict of interest and suggested that Madrone is simply trying to bolster his campaign for Fifth District supervisor. Madrone is running against Ryan Sundberg in the June 2018 primaries to represent the district, which includes the communities of McKinleyville, Trinidad, Orick, Willow Creek and Hoopa. Shepherd was appointed to the planning commission by Sundberg.

Madrone contends that Shepherd has a conflict of interest due to last year’s sale of his home in the Dow’s Prairie area of McKinleyville to a cannabis operation.

A testy exchange

The topic came up during the “Committee Member Reports” portion of the advisory committee’s Oct. 25 meeting.

After Shepherd updated the committee on the planning commission’s work on the commercial cannabis growing ordinance, Madrone started talking about leadership and poor behavior by those at the very top. Then he segued into Shepherd’s alleged conflict of interest.

“There’s been a lot of information that has come out about your property and sales that are above market prices,” Madrone said.

Ben Shepherd

“I did not sell a property above market value,” Shepherd quickly responded.

“It seems to me you have a conflict of interest,” Madrone said.

“No I don’t,” Shepherd said.

And so began a series of back-and-forths, with both men at times talking over each other.

Madrone said that whether Shepherd has a legal conflict of interest, or even just an appearance of a conflict, he has to recuse himself.

“I’m not going to get a lecture from you,” Shepherd said to Madrone as he tried to bring the discussion to a close.

“You don’t have a right to behave this way and shoot me down because you don’t like what I say,” Madrone said.

“Well, you’re just electioneering,” Shepherd said.

“No I’m not,” Madrone said.

At that point Dennis Mayo, who is an alternate for committee member John Corbett on the committee,  interjected “Point of order. Would you please ask your question.”

Madrone responded, “Because there is a very strong appearance, at the very least, of a conflict of interest, will you be recusing yourself from further deliberations on the cannabis ordinance?”

“No,” Shepherd said. “There is no conflict.”

Near the very end of the meeting, there was a short discussion about a proposed community forest in McKinleyville. Madrone asked if he could speak on the issue, and Shepherd responded “no.”

This sparked murmurs in the audience, with at least one woman saying ‘You can’t do that.”

Madrone protested, and started giving his input. As Madrone spoke, Shepherd adjourned the meeting, stood up and started walking toward the door, while most committee members remained seated.

After Madrone was done talking, Mayo suggested to the committee that it consider a more formal process, with time limits, for taking public input.

‘Makes decisions without the facts’

The Union asked Shepherd to address the accusation that he has a conflict of interest and he responded with the following written statement:

“There were two assertions made by Sungnome Madrone that need a response. First was the assertion that I sold a property for more than it was worth, which is just a silly complaint since, other than the public record sale price, he has no knowledge of the details of the sale.

“Sale price is based on what a buyer is willing to pay on any property. The only price basis that I have is a seven-figure bank appraisal about 10 years ago. This sale was to a person who received a permit for a commercial cannabis operation under the ordinance adopted by the Board of Supervisors early in 2017. Sungnome somehow believes that this gives me a conflict of interest as a Planning Commissioner on all cannabis permits and the new ordinance which will be completed early next year.

“Sungnome may not be aware that I have sold timberland, commercial properties, and residential properties.  Following his thinking, does he assume that I have a conflict of interest on all kinds of lands that I have sold? If that were the standard, we would not have any qualified Planning Commissioners.

“Some time ago, I contacted the Fair Political Practices Commission to determine when I would have a conflict of interest. I have and will follow their advice. I have recused myself in the past to prevent a conflict. It is not uncommon to have a Planning Commissioner recuse themselves from a project

“What is most troubling is that Sungnome in a desperate attempt to bolster his campaign, has displayed how he makes decisions without the facts and a clear understanding of the issue. A well qualified candidate would base decisions on reliable information. Clearly, he has not displayed the qualities necessary to serve as our Supervisor.”

Madrone asks FPPC for ruling

In an email to the Union, Madrone said he has requested a formal ruling on the alleged conflict from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC.)

“Here is what we know. Ben was quoted by the Lost Coast Outpost as saying he sold his land in Dow’s Prairie for ‘an excellent price.’ Ben’s name is on an application with the county for cannabis production on his land,” Madrone wrote. “Land values in Humboldt have skyrocketed for parcels where cannabis growing is legal and an application has been submitted. Ben directly benefited financially from his actions on the Planning Commission that crafted the Cannabis Ordinance. You decide... is this a conflict of interest?”

Madrone also referenced the treatment he received at the last McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee meeting, when Shepherd ended the meeting while he was trying to give input.

“He then ended the meeting without a motion or second to do so. Dictatorship or democracy?” Madrone wrote. “I cannot support a politician that feels he does not have to be accountable to the public he serves. Enough with leaders that think they can rule as ‘bullies’ and run roughshod over the people they represent.”



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