State watchdog

An illustration of California Northstate University’s proposed Elk Grove hospital.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) on Sept. 30 advised that Elk Grove City Council Members Darren Suen and Pat Hume should not vote on the land-use application for California Northstate University’s proposed, Elk Grove hospital project.

FPPC, which regulates California’s political activities, determined that both Suen and Hume have a conflict of interest that should prevent them from voting on this hospital. The university plans to complete the facility in the Stonelake neighborhood by November 2022.

Suen’s wife works for Dignity’s St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, and Hume’s wife is employed at Sutter Health’s Memorial Medical Center in Modesto.

The pending land-use application, which includes entitlements for the development of a medical center and campus, must gain the council’s approval for CNU to move forward with the project.

Regarding the question of whether Suen should vote on the land-use application, the FPPC noted that Dignity has an approved hospital project in Elk Grove that may commence in 2023, and that the CNU hospital would create competition for Dignity.

In determining that Suen should be disqualified from voting on the pending CNU hospital project, the FPPC noted that “the reasonably foreseeable financial effect is material,” and that Dignity would be financially affected if CNU’s medical center is built.

Suen, whose District 1 includes the area where CNU proposed to have its hospital built, responded to the commission’s recommendation.

“I am extremely disappointed in the FPPC opinion, considering that both my decades of professional experience and resident experience, along with the community feedback I solicited over this past year would serve as meaningful input on this issue,” he said. “I am a strong advocate for job creation, but any jobs proposal must consider community concerns.”

In addressing Hume, the commission stated that he has a “source of income interest” in his spouse’s employer, and that Sutter would be financially affected if another medical provider opened another medical center, with a hospital, in the city.

“A new medical center and hospital would affect the current state of competition and result in a loss for Sutter,” FPPC Senior Council Zachary Norton wrote.

Hume told the Citizen that he was disappointed by the commission’s opinion.

“It’s disappointing the FPPC drew the conclusions they did,” he said. “It is a stretch, to say the least, that my wife’s employment is in any way contingent or dependent on my vote on a hospital project. I am exploring whether any kind of reconsideration or second opinion is possible, so I can deliberate on this very important process.”

The FPPC opinion notes that Council Members Suen and Hume would need to recuse themselves from discussions while this issue is being considered by the council.

Prior to the commission’s recommendation, Elk Grove City Attorney Jonathan Hobbs on Aug. 27 offered a contrasting opinion in a memo sent to the City Council. He believed that Suen and Hume do not have conflicts of interest in this matter.

Hobbs noted that no facts were present that would indicate that Suen or his wife would be financially impacted by Suen’s vote on CNU’s proposed hospital, and that there is no evidence that his wife would work at Dignity’s Elk Grove facility.

Regarding Hume, Hobbs mentioned that Sutter Health does not have a hospital in Elk Grove that would compete with a CNU hospital in this city.

“No facts have been presented that would suggest that Council Member Hume’s decision on the CNU project would have any impact on Mrs. Hume’s income – and by extension, Council Member Hume’s community property interest in Mrs. Hume’s income,” Hobbs wrote.

Hobbs told the Citizen on Oct. 12 that he “stands by his original opinion” that Suen and Hume should be able to vote on CNU’s land-use application.

He added that the City Council will ultimately decide whether to follow the commission’s advisory.

“This advisory is not binding,” he said. “I suspect (the council) probably will follow it, but that’s they’re discretion. And the reason we asked the FPPC was to get their response, so we could get another opinion.”

Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly told the Citizen on Oct. 10 that he was “surprised” by the commission’s opinion.

“I didn’t expect that, but nonetheless, the FPPC has ruled on it, and that being the case, I think now it’s even more important (for) the remaining three council members that are going to have more of a say in it,” he said.

Ly also provided an invitation for city residents to contact him with their input on the proposed project.

CNU’s proposed hospital is a controversial project, which has drawn both support and criticism from Elk Grove residents since its announcement by the university’s administration in December 2018.

To better express their opposition to the location of the proposed, 261-foot-tall hospital, some Stonelake neighborhood residents and others formed the community group Neighbors Ensuring Sincere Transparency (NEST).

In response to the commission’s opinion, NEST alleged that CNU worked to “silence” City Council opposition to their proposed hospital.

“District 1 Council Member Darren Suen stopped accepting CNU’s campaign contributions and started listening to residents and voicing our concerns,” they stated. “As a result, CNU decided to silence the very district where this project is to be placed and take away our representation.

“We are angry about this and do not feel that the FPPC opinion is very strong. On the other hand, we are hopeful that a controversial project like this will not get the unanimous vote that it now needs.”

Also expressing disapproval of the project’s location are some Stonelake Landing business owners who are worried about losing their places of business. There are also opponents who fear that the project would impact the nearby Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

In a statement sent to the Citizen this week, Brian Holloway, a CNU spokesperson, noted that the university did not seek to remove any of the council members from making a decision on their proposed project.

“In a discussion with Council Member Suen, it surfaced that he might have a potential conflict,” Holloway wrote. “Respectfully and with an abundance of caution, our legal advisors looked into it, and we shared our findings with Council Member Suen.”

Holloway added that CNU accepted Hobbs’ legal opinion that there was no conflict of interest, and that the university was unaware that the FPPC had been contacted by the city.

He added that the university was surprised that Hume was included in the commission’s opinion.

“Our interest is to ensure that there is a fair, equitable and transparent process of consideration by the government agency overseeing approval of the (university’s) project,” Holloway concluded.