An organization called the Checks and Balances Project has filed a California Fair Political Practices Commission complaint against Mayor Peggy Breeden alleging Breeden had a possible financial conflict of interest regarding her vote to withdraw Ridgecrest from the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, according to C&BP Executive Director Scott Peterson.

According to information from Peterson, C&BP is alternately described as an “investigative watchdog that focuses on government officials and others who block growth of the sustainable economy” and an investigative blog with funding from “sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.”

Peterson told the Daily Independent he filed the complaint against Breeden with the FPPC online on Nov. 13.

“Mayor Breeden may be guilty of a conflict of interest due to her vote to kill the PACE program in Ridgecrest and may benefit herself financially. We request an investigation by the FPPC,” reads the edited copy of the complaint supplied to the Daily Independent Nov. 13.

Breeden voted in favor of withdrawing the city from the PACE program at the Ridgecrest City Council meeting Oct. 4. The motion to withdraw from the program passed four to one, with Councilman Wallace Martin as the lone dissenting vote.

The edited complaint alleges that a citizen supplied C&BP a tip that “Mayor Breeden has a connection to the local real estate industry that may have influenced her vote . . . Our tipster told us that Mayor Breeden is an officer and director of Ridgecrest's local advertising newspaper, The Swap Sheet, Inc. The reader added that this company is recognized as an associate member of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors. The Swap Sheet, Inc. appears to receive a major portion of its funding through realtor advertising.”

As of Nov. 14, The Swap Sheet was listed as an associate member of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors on their website.  

Breeden has repeatedly denied any improper influence from any association with local realtors.

Speaking to the Daily Independent Tuesday, Breeden declined to comment on the FPPC complaint citing legal advice. She said the Swap Sheet edition in question had 56 pages of ads, only 5 of which had real estate ads.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, the complaint as submitted by Peterson contained an error. Peterson originally told the Daily Independent that his research indicated Breeden apparently failed to file a Form 700 prior to running for office. The Form 700 is also known as a statement of economic interests and is required from every elected official and public employee who makes or influences government decisions, according to the FPPC website.

After the Daily Independent informed him that Breeden's legal first name is Margaret, Peterson said he was able to find her form.

Peterson found the form after filing the complaint, which he said included a paragraph saying the group was unable to find Breeden's Form 700. Peterson said he was told the one erroneous paragraph should not affect the rest of the complaint. He told the Daily Independent via email he has no plans to file an amended complaint against Breeden.

When Peterson supplied a copy of his complaint to the Daily Independent, this paragraph was edited out.

The PACE program allows homeowners to finance energy efficient property improvements with no upfront costs. Financing is similar to a loan, except property owners make payments through a contractual assessment on their property which is recorded and repaid through their property tax bill.

The assessment is typically based on the value of the home rather than the income or credit score of the owner, although this may be changing. A primary objection to the program (particularly from realtors) is that the lien goes in first place in front of the first trust deed.

Proponents of the program argue it provides a way to make energy-efficient improvements for homeowners with less than perfect credit. Many opponents say they don't have a problem with the idea of the program, but rather the details―particularly the position of the PACE lien. Breeden said Tuesday she approves of the PACE program in general but objected to the position of the lien as the first lien on the property.

Council's vote to withdraw Ridgecrest from the PACE program came after a hard-fought battle on both sides. Representatives from many companies associated with the PACE program spoke up at two city council meetings, arguing that the program should be kept available as a matter of free choice for homeowners.

“If you vote to take PACE away, it’s a private property rights issue and you are telling homeowners they don’t have the right to [that option],” said Brian McCarty, the Kern County account manager for Renovate America’s HERO program at the city council meeting Oct. 4.

A string of local realtors and others spoke up against the program.

“You cannot reasonably expect a lender to make a good loan and have somebody else be able to come in and put a lien in front of it at any time with no notice and us continue to lend the same way,” Eric Bruen, president/CEO of Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union said at the council meeting Sept. 20.

Bruen and others said that they thought there were positive things about the PACE program, but that it would have to be revised to be acceptable.

Mary Lundstrom objected to the fact that lien goes in first place in front of the first trust deed and said the first trustee might not know about it at the council meeting Sept. 20.

“PACE can continue, but it needs to be as a second trust deed but it can’t be in the tax roles. It’s just not right,” Lundstrom said.
The issue of conflict of interest was raised by Ridgecrest resident Michael Catlin prior to the Oct. 4 meeting. Catlin sent an email to City Attorney Keith Lemieux and reportedly to City Clerk Ricca Charlon demanding Breeden and Mayor Pro Tem Michael Mower recuse themselves from the vote because the Swap Sheet is an associate member of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors and Mower's son James Mower is a local realtor.

After the meeting, Lloyd Pilchen who was acting as city attorney told the Daily Independent the issue of conflict of interest was not raised prior to the vote because he and Keith Lemieux thought there was no merit to the accusation.

Breeden and Mower also denied any improper influence after the meeting Oct 4. Breeden told the Daily Independent that her vote was “absolutely not” compromised in any way. Mower said he was no more influenced by his son than by any other of the many other realtors urging withdrawal from the PACE program. Mower also noted that Martin’s son Matthew Martin also spoke up in favor of the PACE program at a previous council meeting.

The version of the FPPC complaint by C&BP obtained by the Daily Independent does not mention Mower. Peterson informed the Daily Independent he is not planning to file complaints on any other council members at this time.

The C&BP in August filed lawsuits against the Kern County Board of Supervisors and Bakersfield City Council “to get to the bottom of questions about how lobbyists got local officials to kill PACE in both jurisdictions” according to information from Peterson.