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Two former top officials in the Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department face fines for failing to report thousands of dollars in free gifts from the operator of the Bennett Valley Golf Course.

Marc Richardson, director of the department until his retirement in December, and Rich Hovden, parks development manager until his retirement in February, are set to be fined next week by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Both men's retirements were unexpected.

The longtime city employees are accused of failing to report gifts they received from the operator of the city golf course in excess of $50 in violation of city rules. The gifts included free rounds of golf, free access to the driving range, free cart use, free lessons and merchandise discounts, according to the FPPC.

A May 16 FPPC agenda indicates that Richardson is facing a $6,500 fine, while Hovden is facing a $3,000 fine.

Richardson also is accused of violating conflict-of-interest laws by accepting gifts from the golf course operator, Bob Borowicz, while he was negotiating a new contract with Borowicz, a contract he then recommended for approval to the City Council.

"These are very troubling issues, there is no doubt about it," City Manager Kathy Millison said.

Millison said she became aware of the problem last fall around the time the prior year's budget figures were finalized and showed continuing losses at the course. The 18-hole course was built in 1969 with city funds but is run as a separate enterprise sustained by green fees and other revenue.

The course, like many in the nation, has suffered in recent years as the economy left people with less disposable income and interest in the sport has slipped.

Millison declined to say how she learned of the gifts or divulge details of her investigation, calling it a personnel matter.

"Once I became aware, I did look into everything and took the necessary corrective action," Millison said.

Mayor Scott Bartley said he understood the city received an anonymous "poison pen" letter alleging department heads were receiving free rounds of golf. He said he couldn't talk about it further because it was a personnel matter. All the council was told was that it had been taken care of, he said.

"It's her job to manage people," Bartley said. "It's our job to manage her."

The city hired a private investigator who quickly determined through interviews with Borowicz, Richardson and Hovden that the free play had been going on for years, Borowicz said.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler said the investigation and resulting report are confidential because they involve a personnel matter. The investigation was performed by Kevan D. Kurt & Associates of Santa Rosa, who charged the city attorney's office $702 for the work, according to city records.

Millison informed Richardson and Hovden that they would need to repay Borowicz for the golf rounds, lessons and other benefits, and they did so in December.

Records show that Richardson repaid Borowicz a total of $5,324, most of it on Dec. 11. He retired 11 days later after 27years of service.

The gifts Richardson listed receiving included three free lessons from Borowicz, discounts on hundreds of dollars of golf clubs, balls and apparel and numerous free rounds of golf over six years.

Records show Hovden paid back $4,212.25. On his revised FPPC form, Hovden indicates the gifts were for "cart use, course use, range use, merchandise discount" between 2007 and 2012, and that the gifts were repaid in December.

"I didn't have any idea that it was considered a gift," Hovden said Friday. "In hindsight, if I knew that, I certainly would have paid or wouldn't have played."

Richardson did not immediately return a call for comment.

Like all top city officials, both men were required to annually file a statement of economic interest form that discloses, among other things, what gifts worth more than $50 they have received from people doing business with the city.

In their disclosures between 2007 and 2012, which are signed under penalty of perjury, neither disclosed the golf or other course benefits as gifts. After the completion of the investigation, Richardson amended six years' worth of economic disclosure forms, Hovden four.

Richardson's amended forms show him playing 90 rounds of golf at the Bennett Valley Golf Course between 2007 and 2012, with the number increasing dramatically during his final year with the city.

Richardson lists playing nine holes with a cart five times in 2007, six times in 2008, 12 times in 2009, 13 times in 2010, 14 times in 2011 and 40 times in 2012.

The value of nine holes increased over that time from $23 in 2007 to $27 last year. Richardson was being paid $154,750 plus benefits when he retired.

Hovden's reports are less detailed. They show him receiving $982 in gifts from Borowicz in 2009, $432 in 2010, $1,452 in 2011 and $1,346 last year.

He was making $117,744 per year plus benefits when he retired, according to the city.

Borowicz said he was glad to comp the department head because it was a benefit Richardson's predecessor had enjoyed, as well. As the person responsible for golf course operations, it made sense that Richardson should have regular access to the course, Borowicz said.

Richardson and Hovden almost always played the back nine holes first thing on Saturday morning, meaning they never bumped any paying customers from a tee time, Borowicz said.

He said he did not consider the free lessons and merchandise discounts he gave the men out of the ordinary for golfers he knew well. While he doesn't feel he did anything wrong or was taken advantage of, Borowicz said he feels badly that the gifts became a problem for the men.

"I just feel horrible, to be honest with you," said Borowicz, who has operated the course since 2002.

There have been rumors for months about investigations underway in the recreation and parks department, but city officials have been tight-lipped.

Asked last month about the issues she was looking into in the department, Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips characterized them as normal administrative reviews of existing contracts.

She did not mention that the Bennett Valley Golf Course was losing money or that an outside firm recently had completed a review of golf course operations.

Millison also initially made no mention of the issue Friday during an interview about problems in the department until she was informed that the FPPC had the matter on its upcoming agenda.

She would not comment on whether the investigation or FPPC filings played a role in the retirements.

"I can't speak to an individual's desire to retire," Millison said. "Marc certainly had his challenges over these last three years. It wasn't a fun time. It was a struggle."

Richardson previously said that severe cuts to his department over the past several years were a major factor in his decision to retire.

Once Millison became aware of the golf course problem, she said she was determined to set it straight and get to the bottom of the issues in the department.

"I'm not going to retreat from the problems we have," Millison said. "It's my job to look at these things and determine how we are going to solve some of these problems."

That included ensuring that the FPPC was made aware of the violations of the city's code. City Clerk Terri Griffin, in consultation with Millison, said she referred the amended filings to the FPPC enforcement division as required by law.

Millison said she never disclosed the issues regarding Richardson and Hovden in part because the FPPC has yet to complete its administrative process. The proposed fines won't be final until Thursday.

Hovden, who said he will not contest his fine, said the investigation did not prompt him to retire. He said he remains proud of the work he did for the city over 40 years.

"During my career, I have had nothing but the best interests of the city and the community in mind," Hovden said.

On Tuesday, Phillips told the council that renegotiating the city's contract with Borowicz was her top priority. She said the city was currently recruiting a new parks chief and hoped to have a director in place by July.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater.

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