Calistoga's mayor violated state conflict of interest rules when he voted on three recent resort construction or expansion plans, the state's Fair Political Practices Commission says.
Because he is also executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce, Chris Canning should not have voted on the resort projects because the construction represented a financial benefit to his primary employer, the commission said in a decision approved Sept. 19.
The developers behind all three resort plans were chamber members at the time of the votes in 2012 and 2013, paying dues worth a total of $1,651. If all three projects are built as planned, their combined dues would jump to $4,679.
"As such, it was reasonably foreseeable at the time of the (votes) that the decisions would have a financial effect on the chamber," commission investigators wrote.
Canning cooperated with the investigation and agreed to pay a $3,000 fine to the state.
In a written statement, Canning expressed surprise at the commission's position, saying neither he nor the city's attorneys had ever heard of an FPPC decision based on the possible effect of government actions on Chamber of Commerce dues.
The FPPC position "is extreme and will have significant consequences and impact across the state in the several communities which have similar situations of the head of a chamber or similar business organization also serving in an elected position," he said.
He said he agreed to the settlement only because the "financial risk of me continuing to fight this matter through a hearing process versus reaching settlement was enormous and would have included all attorney's fees and a significantly larger penalty if the FPPC still found against me."
Canning could have faced up to $5,000 in fines, but the commission opted for a lower number citing his cooperation with the investigation and his lack of any previous violations.
At the time the first two projects were approved, Canning was a council member; he was elected to a two-year term as mayor in November of 2012, shortly before the third project was approved.
The first vote came on May 15, 2012, when the council approved an application by a Colorado-based developer to demolish the existing Silver Rose Inn on Silverado Trail and replace it with an 84-room resort.
On Aug. 21, the City Council approved an unrelated plan to build Enchanted Resorts, a 110-room resort on a wooded hilltop on the other side of town, near the intersection of Highway 29, Lincoln Avenue, and Foothills Boulevard.
On Dec. 18, after Canning had been sworn in as mayor, the council approved a request to nearly triple the size of the existing Indian Springs Resort downtown, expanding it from 41 to 116 rooms and adding a restaurant, event space, and other amenities.
In each case, there were a series of technical votes involved in the approval, and each required a subsequent confirmation vote by the council. In all, the three projects required Canning to cast 18 separate votes between May 18, 2012, and Jan. 15, 2013.
Canning supported all three projects, both as a council member and in his role as head of the chamber.
The question of his dual role as council member and chamber leader has surfaced before for Canning, most recently during his mayoral run, but past FPPC investigations have concluded that there was no conflict. Critics had complained because the chamber administers a tourism promotion grant for the city worth as much as $302,000 annually. Commission investigators have dismissed several such complaints, saying that because Canning has consistently recused himself from voting on the annual contract, he did not have a prohibited conflict.