California's Fair Political Practices Commission has said that Mayor Eric Filseth and City Councilwoman Liz Kniss can now participate in decisions about grade-separation projects, from which they have previously abstained based on prior advice from the agency.
City Attorney Molly Stump sought advice on their potential conflict of interest from the state commission last year as the City Council discussed options for the redesign of four rail intersections in Palo Alto. The FPPC advised at the time that Filseth, then vice mayor, and Kniss, then mayor, did have conflicts of interest and couldn't participate in related decisions.
The City Council has since narrowed down the potential options for reconfiguring the railroad crossings. In May, the council voted to eliminate a proposal for a citywide underground tunnel and to consider building a tunnel in south Palo Alto. It has also decided to move the decision for Palo Alto Avenue, the northernmost rail crossing, into a separate downtown area planning process.
As such, the potential grade-separation project under consideration that is closest to Filseth's Downtown North home is now 1.5 miles away, and none are within 1,000 feet of a multifamily rental property that Kniss owns on Alma Street.
"It is not reasonably foreseeable," Fair Political Practices Commission General Counsel Dave Bainbridge wrote in a Sept. 12 letter, that rail-crossing decisions "would have a material financial effect" on their properties or financial interests.
"Conflict-of-interest laws are there for a reason," Filseth wrote in an email to the Weekly. "I'm glad to be approved to participate on the three crossings I don't live near."
Kniss did not immediately return a request for comment.
Bainbridge noted in his letter that the FPPC is "not a finder of fact when rendering advice" and the advice is based on the information that the city provided to them.
The council aims to make a final decision on its preferred alternatives for grade separations this fall.