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Individual Could Not Simultaneously Serve As Mayor And Director Of Water Replenishment District
Albert Robles served as a member of the board of directors of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD). The WRD ensures that a reliable supply of groundwater is available throughout the region, and is responsible for monitoring and testing the groundwater supply. As a WRD director, Robles represented a geographic division that included Carson, California.
The WRD board of directors charges a “replenishment assessment” to fund its operating expenses and other activities. The replenishment assessment is levied on the production of groundwater within the district during the ensuing fiscal year. The City of Carson contracts with two private companies to provide its pumped groundwater. The companies pay the WRD’s replenishment assessment and pass on the cost in the water rates they charge.
Robles was a WRD director in 2013 when he was elected to a city council seat in Carson. The District Attorney notified Robles that he was holding two incompatible offices under Government Code section 1099, but Robles continued to occupy both. Section 1099 makes it unlawful to simultaneously hold incompatible public offices, meaning, offices for which “there is a significant clash of duties or loyalties” based on the powers and jurisdiction of the positions. In April 2015, Robles was appointed to fill the vacant office of mayor of Carson. As mayor, Robles continued to sit on the city council.
Subsequently, the District Attorney requested approval from the Attorney General to sue Robles in quo warranto, a Latin term for a legal proceeding that demands a person show by what authority he or she holds a public office. The Attorney General granted the District Attorney’s application, and the District Attorney filed a quo warranto complaint alleging that Robles’ two offices were incompatible under section 1099 “because the WRD and City of Carson have overlapping territories, duties, and responsibilities, and a clash of duties is likely to arise in the exercise of both offices simultaneously.” The WRD then passed resolutions expressly authorizing directors to hold positions in other governmental agencies. But the trial court agreed with the District Attorney and removed Robles from the office of WRD director. Robles appealed.
The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision that Robles was holding incompatible offices. The court noted that Robles was setting the water replenishment assessment for his Carson constituents. As mayor and a councilmember, Robles had an electoral incentive to minimize the amount of the replenishment assessment. However, as a WRD director, Robles’ duties required him to focus on ensuring the adequacy of the groundwater supply, not the financial impact of the assessment on Carson’s residents. The court reasoned that section 1099 forbids this sort of conflicted arrangement by making it unlawful to hold multiple public offices when there is a “possibility of a significant clash of duties or loyalties” between them.
The court was not persuaded by any of Robles’ arguments to the contrary. While Robles challenged the District Attorney’s authority and process for bring a quo warranto proceeding, the court concluded that the District Attorney’s actions were lawful. Further, the court noted that there was no “law” expressly authorizing Robles to hold both offices. Section 1099 allows an individual to hold two incompatible offices if “simultaneous holding of the particular offices is compelled or expressly authorized by law.” While Robles argued that WRD passed resolutions expressly authorizing a director to hold positions in other agencies, the court determined that the Legislature’s reference to “law” meant to state, not local law.
People ex rel. Lacey v. Robles, 44 Cal.App.5th 804 (2020).
This case highlights the potential conflict of interest that arises when an agency official holds multiple offices. WRD’s resolutions expressly authorizing directors to hold positions in other governmental agencies did not override state law prohibiting incompatible offices.