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Deb Fudge's votes on Windsor housing project raise objectivity questions

Windsor Town Councilwoman Deb Fudge’s approval of a housing project proposed by developers who made financial contributions to assist her campaign for Sonoma County supervisor has raised questions among her colleagues about her vote and decision-making as she seeks higher political office.

Fudge has benefited from political donations made by the developers of Bell Village, one of the biggest mixed-use projects to be proposed in Windsor, and she subsequently voted two weeks ago to allow the developers to pursue significant changes they were seeking for the project.

Earlier this year, her campaign received $11,000 in donations from Bell Village developer Bill Gallaher and his wife, Cynthia. A separate independent expenditure committee that supports Fudge also listed $15,000 in contributions from corporations formed by Bob Bisno, a Southern California developer who has taken over the residential portion of Bell Village.

Fudge said she had no conflict in approving a motion that could speed up the developers’ request to allow them to build townhomes instead of previously approved “stacked” condominiums; dispense with underground parking; eliminate two access entries from Old Redwood Highway; and grant more building allocations to allow for construction of all the planned 387 residential units.

“There are campaign rules for a reason. I have followed them to the letter of the law,” Fudge said. “My reputation is sterling, and I’ve always been above board and honest.”

Fudge is running for 4th District supervisor after coming in first in the June primary over second-place finisher James Gore and three other candidates. She and Gore, a former Obama administration official, face a run-off in the November election.

Gore said Friday he has not looked into Fudge’s vote on Bell Village and the political contributions tied to its developers. He said he had no reason to believe there is any impropriety.

But “residents and citizens, rightfully so, are very concerned about the connection between money and politics, and money and public service,” he said. “There is an expectation of candidates and current elected officials that you prove there is not a connection between what they are doing as public service, and money.”

Even though her fellow council members all voted with her to hold a workshop Sept. 17 to consider quickly granting the changes to Bell Village, some of them questioned Fudge’s participation in the matter.

“It does put a shadow over her perspective,” said Windsor Mayor Bruce Okrepkie, when informed of the Gallahers’ campaign contributions and the independent expenditure from Bisno’s corporations, Bell Village Community LLC and Windsor Mill Community LLC. “Hopefully she’s not being swayed by the money, but you never know.”

“It just doesn’t look right,” said Councilman Steve Allen, who said he knew of the contributions Bell Village developers have made to support Fudge’s run for supervisor.

He noted that council members, like other public officials in California, are required to complete a periodic ethics training course offered by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

“If you read through the ethics and training stuff, it says it’s not illegal,” Allen said. “But it immediately says you should really consider very hard whether voting on a project where someone contributed so heavily to your campaign is ethical.”

He said in a similar situation he would have recused himself from voting on the project. “I looked at it and said, ‘is she really going to sit in on this?’

“If she gets that kind of money and votes on Bell Village, which is coming up again as well, I think that’s a pretty tough thing to justify in voters’ minds,” Allen said.

For her part, Fudge said “I’ve never given anyone a favor for money in my entire life and I’m not starting now. The public knows this.”

Fudge disclosed the contributions from the Gallahers in a campaign finance statement she filed in May. And at the time, she also was asked by The Press Democrat about the $15,000 donation Bisno made to the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County, the independent committee that supports her.

“I’m not supposed to be involved, and I’m not,” she said then of her relationship to the committee. “There’s not a conflict of interest.”

Both Allen and Okrepkie have publicly endorsed Gore, along with Councilwoman Robin Goble, who did not return calls for comment.

Councilman Sam Salmon, who does not plan to endorse anyone in the supervisorial race, said “you can take funds from people you are involved with, in terms of having to make decisions.”

“I have to trust Deb. I think she’s been genuine for 20 years,” he said. He said he has been involved politically with her for two decades and appointed Fudge to the Planning Commission, which served as a stepping stone to her first election to the Town Council in 1996.

“We’ve been good friends, and I’ve known her to be honest,” Salmon said.

An FPPC official said the agency cannot comment on specific cases or situations, since they don’t know all the details, but in general campaign contributions in and of themselves are not considered a conflict of interest, according to the state’s Political Reform Act.

“Conflict of interest regulations are designed to try to ensure that public officials vote only in the public interest, and not for anything that would provide them a material, financial improvement to their personal or business (dealings),” FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga stated in an email.

Developer Bisno said in an interview that he decided to make the donation to the committee supporting Fudge because she is a champion of the Sonoma-Marin commuter train service, which is seen as integral to Bell Village. Bisno touted the economic and environmental benefits he said the rail service to Windsor and cities to the north.

Bisno, a developer for 40 years, with a hand in more than 85 buildings or residential projects in 40 towns and cities, has been in the news for controversial contributions he has made to political campaigns. Critics painted them as attempts to influence decisions on his projects.

But Bisno said that is not why he makes political donations.

“My experience is you cannot buy votes and any attempt to buy a vote will only backfire,” he said.

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