A string of City Council decisions to facilitate a $100 million deal for a new public school site could be thrown into limbo over an alleged conflict from one councilman's side business. Mountain View city officials are seriously evaluating an alleged conflict of interest stemming from Councilman John McAlister's partial ownership of a private preschool located on a Los Altos School District campus.
In late August, the Mountain View city attorney's office sent a letter to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), requesting clarity on whether the Stepping Stones Preschool, which leases space from the Los Altos School District (LASD) at Covington Elementary, represents a conflict for McAlister.
Councilman John McAlister
"I am very pleased the council voted to provide me with representation for the alleged conflict of interest regarding LASD," McAlister said in an emailed statement. "I look forward to receiving formal written advice from the FPPC and resolving this matter."
The allegations swirling around McAlister started in July when Mountain View resident Ellyn Berner filed a complaint letter to the FPPC. In her complaint, Berner contends that McAlister's investment in the preschool could have influenced his votes by presenting an ulterior motive to protect or grow his business.
Any business investment surpassing $2,000 is treated as a potential conflict of interest under state government code. In McAlister's case, his 40 percent ownership of Stepping Stones Preschool is well past that threshold.
But city attorneys say the investment still doesn't represent a conflict. In a letter sent to the FPPC, city senior attorney Krishan Chopra said McAlister's preschool doesn't meet any of the various definitions for a conflict under the FPPC rules. The recent council decisions involving the school district would not have any significant impact on Stepping Stones Preschool or McAlister's investment, he wrote.
In a prior interview with the Voice, McAlister gave assurances that he was cleared by city legal staff to participate in the school discussions. But he declined to elaborate on when that advice was given. Similarly, Quinn said she could not confirm or disclose details on any advice her office had given to McAlister. That advice, if given, would be protected by attorney-client privilege, she told the Voice.
On Tuesday, the FPPC confirmed that the conflict of interest complaint is being treated as a formal investigation. Under those circumstances, the commission would likely not respond to Mountain View's request for advice until the case is resolved, said FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga.
The stakes are high for a councilman being called to task over his standing to participate in decisions regarding the new school campus.
A portion of Mountain View falls within LASD boundaries, but all but one of the district's campuses are within Los Altos. The school district and city have been cooperating for nearly three years on securing land for a new 10th school campus. That effort moved briskly in recent months as Mountain View officials finalized a subsidy package worth $103 million to help LASD secure land for the school. In June, school district officials announced they would use eminent domain to purchase 9.6 acres of the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View.
That deal is nearly at the finish line the Mountain View council is scheduled to discuss the project on Oct. 16, and possibly give final approval for the subsidy package, which includes park funds and permission for LASD to sell the site's excess development rights to raise money for the land purchase. By seeking advice from the FPPC, city officials wanted clarity on whether McAlister could participate in the decision, City Manager Dan Rich said.
The potential ramifications of McAlister's conflict have clouded deliberations on the new school campus. At a recent meeting, members of a school district task force repeatedly brought up the potential conflict, and they wondered aloud whether a tie-breaking council vote would be neutralized on future decisions.
McAlister has countered that those making allegations against him have their own ulterior motive. He believes the FPPC complaint is being spearheaded by advocates for Bullis Charter School, which operates independent schools at two Los Altos School District campuses.
Berner, the plaintiff listed on the FPPC filing, has repeatedly declined to say whether she is affiliated with the Bullis school, despite repeated requests by the Voice. Bullis advocates have been similarly circumspect.
"I'm not going to dignify that with a response," said Bullis board chair Joe Hurd, when asked if his group was behind the FPPC complaint. Bullis would issue a formal response to McAlister's accusation once the full board was notified, he said. He later said in follow-up email that no comment would be forthcoming.
The charter school advocates have a long history of legal and political feuding with their public-school counterparts over equal treatment and facility use. For months, Bullis board members have publicly warned that the San Antonio school plan was a ploy by LASD to relocate Bullis to an inadequate site the school community didn't want.
Bullis is currently capped at 900 students, but charter school officials have expressed interest in dramatically expanding the student body. Relocating to the San Antonio site would artificially constrain those growth plans, given its tight space, Hurd said.
"It makes zero sense for the largest school to be put on the smallest site -- that doesn't make sense for LASD, taxpayers or Mountain View residents," he said. "This has nothing to do with where the site is located, but it has everything to do with if this is fair."
Los Altos school district officials have avoided saying definitively what school will go on the Mountain View site. At public meetings, LASD Superintendent Jeff Baier asked Mountain View city leaders not to tie his hands by laying down conditions for what kind of school could be built.
But the vagueness of the LASD plans has unnerved some members of the Mountain View City Council. At a crucial June meeting, three of the seven council members wanted to set conditions on what kind of school could be built, in light of the city's significant financial assistance. Among their stipulations, they wanted a commitment from LASD that the site would be used for a new neighborhood school serving Mountain View students, not for relocating Bullis.
At that meeting, McAlister's support for the plan proved decisive, swinging a 4-3 vote to approve moving forward with the city's $103 million subsidy package, with no strings attached. In the weeks following that decision, a nine-member task force largely selected by LASD administrators announced what many were already anticipating: Bullis would be the best use for the new school site, they said. Bullis representatives say that charter school board members were not allowed to participate in the task force.
If FPPC officials ascertain that McAlister does have a conflict of interest, it could have a wide range of impacts. He would be restricted from future discussions involving the new school plans. State officials can also impose a variety of penalties, from a simple warning letter to fees of up to $5,000 per violation.
As for past votes taken by a compromised official, FPPC officials say that it would be up to the City Council to decide whether those actions would need to be revisited.