Commissioner Conflict of Interest

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Landmark chairman won't quit
John Geluardi, Berkeley Daily Planet

A Community Environmental Advisory Commission meeting ended abruptly Thursday, making it the third city commission meeting to collapse in confusion and acrimony under allegations of conflict of interest.

After a heated public comment period, acting chair of the commission, Gordon Wozniak, refused to recuse himself from an issue related to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where Wozniak is a senior scientist. Frustrated by his refusal, three commissioners walked out of the meeting leaving too few commissioners to legally continue. Commissioners Pratap Chatterjee and Elmer Grossman were not present at the meeting.

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque has issued two opinions that allege Wozniak has a conflict of interest serving on the commission while he is employed at LBNL. In her Jan. 2 and Jan 31 opinions Albuquerque recommended Wozniak resign from the commission because a large percentage of items the commission considers are related to laboratory environmental issues.

Wozniak is the second CEAC commissioner said by- the city attorney to have a conflict of interest. Former Chair John Selawsky resigned when the city attorney alleged his election to the school board created a conflict of interest with his duties as a commissioner. Selawsky resigned shortly after taking his school board post.

Wozniak said he has a right to he on the commission and will not resign until forced to do so. "I've lived in Berkeley for 34 years and the city attorney is trying to make me a second class citizen by not allowing me to serve my community," he said.

Commissioners Jami Caseber, Pam Webster and LA Wood walked out of the meeting Thursday shortly after Wozniak said he would not recuse himself. This is the second time in three weeks a CEAC meeting has ended without the commission considering any of the items on its agenda.

"There was tension and anger in the room from the very beginning of the meeting," said Commissioner Nicholas Morgan. "Things just weren't going well and then the commissioners left and that was it." Morgan said the commentary from the public was hostile and unproductive. The meeting was attend by 25 members of the public, most associated with the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, which has aggressively opposes LBNL's use of the radioactive material, tritium.

"The commentators thought it was more important to say what a scoundrel Gordon Wozniak is rather than to respect the process' Morgan said. "It was disgraceful, immature and rude." The first CEAC meeting to implode was on Feb. 1. At that meeting Commissioners Caseber, Webster and Susan Chang, who was standing in for Chatterjee, walked out, which ended the meeting.

The CEAC is the second commission to be disabled by allegations by the city attorney of conflict of interest. A Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting came to a sudden halt when four commissioners, Becky O'Malley, Lesley Emmington-Jones, Carrie Olson and Doug Morse were asked by the chair of the commission not to discuss or vote on any issues related to the proposed Beth El synagogue at 1301 Oxford St. The four commissioners refused and the meeting was immediately adjourned.

Albuquerque said conflict of interest issues are nothing new and that newly appointed commissioners are routinely given information about possible conflicts and some chose to disregard it. "Conflict of interest laws are necessary for government to conduct its business in a fair manner that's impartial and accessible," she said.

Wozniak, who has retained San Leandro attorney James Harrison, said he will not resign until he is forced to do so. According to Wozniak the city attorney can issue an opinion about his possible conflict of interest but she cannot remove him from the commission.

Wozniak says he can only be removed by the state attorney general and the councilmember who appointed him. "I serve at the pleasure of Councilmember Polly Armstrong and she hasn't asked me to step down yet," he said. Armstrong couldn't be reached by the Daily Planet before press time, but has said she plans to stand by her commissioner.

CMTW member Pam Sihvola said her group agrees with the city attorney. "He should step down as long as he's employed by the LBNL because as commissioner he will have to make decisions on subjects that are related directly to his employer,” she said.

Commissioner Chatterjee agrees. "Commissioner Wozniak has done his level best to focus the commission's attention on insignificant issues like exit signs rather than the huge amounts of tritium stored at LBNL," he said.

Wozniak contends that there is tritium all over the city contained in illuminated "EXIT" signs and that no one seems to care unless it's in the Berkeley Hills.

Commissioner Webster said she has been frustrated by the commission's failure to address any of the items on its agenda. "I find myself wondering why Commissioner Wozniak won't at least recuse himself from items related to the LBNL," she said. "Because as long as he's there we won't get to discuss these issues."

Bickering panel makes up March 3, 2001
John Geluardi, Berkeley Daily Planet

The formerly bickering Community Environmental Advisory Commission conducted its meeting Thursday with the harmonious rapture of newlyweds making up after their first fight.

CEAC was able to complete its monthly meeting without any scenes and take action on several items of business, including electing a new chair and vice chair. The success of the meeting was in stark contrast to the last two meetings, which collapsed when disgruntled commissioners abruptly left in protest over the acting chair's refusal to recuse himself from issues related to his employer, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque wrote two opinions in January saying that Acting Chair Gordon Wozniak should resign because of his employment as a senior scientist at the laboratory. Wozniak has steadfastly disagreed with Albuquerque and has refused to step down from the commission or recuse himself from lab-related issues.

'I feel strongly I should not be made a second class citizen because of my occupation.' he said at the beginning of Thursdays meeting. The opinions were issued shortly before a controversial draft report was issued by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research that claims the National Tritium Labeling

Facility at LBNL may pose a danger to residents who live near the laboratory during a fire or natural disaster. The report polarized the commission adding to the conflict over Wozniak's role on the commission.

The to previous meetings on Feb. 1 and Feb. 22 ended when three commissioners abruptly walked out. In both cases, their departure left too few commissioners to legally continue.

 At the Feb. 1 meeting Commissioners Jami Caseber. Pam Webster and temporary Commissioner Susan Chang left the meeting when Wozniak refused the request to recuse himself from LBNL issues.

On Feb. 22, the CEAC meeting ended for the same reason when Caseber, Webster and new Commissioner LA Wood walked out. In both cases the commission was unable to take any action on items on its agenda. But on Thursday commissioners seemed willing to forget the infighting and move forward.

Wood said the previous meetings had been unruly. "In the last year there has been a loss of confidence in what this body does." he said. "I hope we can go forward in a more parliamentary manner."

Commissioner Elmer Grossman said the usual decorum that residents expect from a government body was not evident at recent CEAC meetings. "There was so much name calling and cat calls at the last meeting. I went home and had a stiff drink and wondered about remaining on the commission."

Part of the reason the commission was able to get along may have been a communication from the city attorney clarifying the commission's role in relation to her opinion of Wozniak's conflict of interest.

On Feb 27. Albuquerque wrote that while she had advised that there was a conflict of interest "the implementation of this advice requires either Mr. Wozniak's action to resign or the action of the appointing councilmember to replace him. Thus he is on the commission until replaced."

Wozniak was appointed by Councilmember Polly Armstrong who is currently out of state. Several weeks ago Armstrong told the Daily Planet she would stand behind Wozniak, but she could not be reached more recently to respond to questions about continued support for the controversial commissioner.

There were unconfirmed reports on Friday that Wozniak was considering resigning from the commission.

One of the first actions the commission took Thursday was to elect a new chair and vice chair. Commissioner Caseber was approved as the new chair of the commission by a 7-0-I vote with Wozniak abstaining. Caseber has served on the commission for eight years including one year as chair in 1996.

Several of the commissioners said the 56-year-old Caseber was the best choice because he could bring a sense of stability to the commission. Caseber said he would agree to the role on the condition he would chair for only three-to-six months. Most terms last one year. "This job is stressful," Caseber said. "And I promised my wife I wouldn't do this anymore."

Caseber said he wants to see the board function better in the next few months "and the only way that can happen is if every­body pulls their weight and hangs together." Wood, recently appointed by Councilmember Maudelle Shirek, was elected as vice chair of the commission over Grossman by a vote of 5-3.

Shortly after Caseber was elected chair, commission members were discussing how much authority the chair actually has, when Commissioner Daniel Luten interjected an observation: "Being chair of this commission is like herding cats," he said.

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