As Facebook continues to be a powerful political force in the city of Menlo Park, concerns have been raised by the public that at least two contenders for the three City Council seats up for election this year could have conflicts of interest that would disqualify them from participating in Facebook-related council decisions.
According to state political ethics laws, a city official should be disqualified from participating in making a decision if "it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material effect on one or more of the official's financial interests," said Menlo Park City Attorney Bill McClure.
Determining just what is "reasonably foreseeable" to have a "material effect" on an official's financial interests gets complicated quickly, McClure explained in a written statement.
One of the primary concerns is with District 2 candidate Drew Combs, who is a Facebook employee. McClure explained that under the law, receiving one's income from Facebook constitutes a "financial interest," so Combs would have to recuse himself from decisions that would foreseeably have a "material effect" on Facebook, or on property owned or leased by the company.
That means he wouldn't be able to vote on Facebook's proposed "Willow Village," which would be the city's largest-ever development. The development as proposed would essentially create a new neighborhood with 1,500 apartments, nine new office buidings, a hotel, some retail spaces – including, Belle Haven residents hope, a grocery store –and outdoor open spaces.
But that's not necessarily where such conflicts would end for Combs, McClure said. Conflict of interest laws would be likely to bar Combs from decisions about property leased by Facebook – which, at this point, is a large portion of the city's Bayside office space.
Combs might also be required to recuse himself from matters such as amendments or updates to the city's zoning plan in the eastern part of the city, called "ConnectMenlo," that impact how much commercial development can happen there, McClure said.
There could also "be some conflict issues" on matters like the city's transportation master plan, specifically regarding transportation projects that would be funded from new development in the city between U.S. 101 and the Bay; and "possibly (regarding) improvements to Bayfront Expressway, Willow Road east of U.S. 101, and Dumbarton Rail Corridor improvements or studies," McClure said.
According to McClure, there will have to be a factual analysis and determination of how Facebook could be financially impacted by new development. To determine if it would be a conflict for Combs to participate in discussions and votes on transportation projects, the city would have to know what portion of the projects Facebook is expected to fund.
McClure reported that he didn't believe Combs would have to recuse himself from residential projects like the proposed 140-apartment, below-market-rate development from MidPen Housing on Willow Road, or a proposed 94-apartment building on Independence Drive, since those "would not likely have a material impact on (Facebook)."
"While Drew might have a conflict for transportation improvements in the Bayfront area, he would still be able to participate in discussion, direction and decisions regarding other areas of the City as part of the Master Transprotation Plan process, so long as those discussions are handled separately from the Bayfront Area improvements," McClure added.
If Combs is elected, the city would request a letter from the California Fair Political Practices Commission laying out more specific ethical guidance regarding what he will be permitted to vote on, McClure noted. Furthermore, he added, whether there are four or five council members voting, a council decision will still need three votes to pass.
Another concern raised was about District 1 candidate Cecilia Taylor, who, in her work as founder of Belle Haven Action, a nonprofit project of UnaMesa Association, accepted $75,000 in funding for Belle Haven Action from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The Initiative is a philanthropic investment company funded by the family fortune of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan.
McClure said that in his opinion, the fact that Belle Haven Action has received funding from the Initiative "would not preclude" Taylor from voting on any Facebook-related matters.
"There is no direct impact on a source of income since Chan Zuckerberg would not be an applicant or affected by decisions, so the effects would not be foreseeable or material," he explained. "That being said, we would request an opinion from the FPPC to confirm this conclusion if she is elected."