CITY HALL — A state law governing conflicts of interest for members of public agencies is wreaking havoc on Santa Monica boards and commissions, causing an exodus of architecture and design professionals at a time when new development is pouring into the city.

The law, Government Code 1090, prohibits members of the City Council, boards and commissions from participating in “the making of contracts” in which they have financial interest.

“Making” is broadly defined by the case law to include any action which impacts the scope of a contract, which includes changes to a project, wrote City Attorney Marsha Moutrie in an e-mail.

Violation can involve forfeiting the contract and felony prosecution, but the issue didn’t come up until architect and former planning commissioner Gwynne Pugh asked the city attorney’s advice about pursuing a municipal contract.

Four members of boards and commissions have since resigned over the rule, the most recent of which was Architectural Review Board member Michael Folonis.

Folonis, an architect, announced his resignation from the board at its Monday meeting.

In a letter to the City Council dated Oct. 27, Folonis wrote that the City Attorney’s Office alerted him that his presence on the ARB constituted a conflict of interests because of his work on a mixed-use project with a pending development agreement.

Development agreements are contracts with City Hall.

“I therefore resign from the Architectural Review Board effective immediately, so as not to compromise the board’s standards nor my clients’ positions in negotiating their development agreements with the city,” Folonis wrote.

The call from the city attorney came as a surprise, despite the fact that the law has been on the books, Folonis said.

“The unfortunate thing is that this was never brought up as an issue before,” he said.

In the past, if he was involved with a development that came before the ARB, Folonis recused himself, leaving the chambers for both the conversation and the vote.

If the project in question, a mixed-use development at 401 Broadway, didn’t need a development agreement, recusal would have been sufficient, Moutrie said.

Because of its status as a contract, however, Folonis’ presence would prevent the matter from ever coming before the ARB, removing one layer of review on the project.

Folonis’ departure marked the fourth member of a Santa Monica board or commission connected to contract projects that were determined to have a conflict of interest, Moutrie said.

The first, Pugh, left his position in May.

In October, architect and former planning commissioner Hank Koning also left the commission, citing the need to focus on his business.

Koning’s firm, Koning & Eizenberg, is involved with the Pico Branch Library project.

Dryden Helgoe, a landscape architect, left the Recreation and Parks Commission because of her husband’s connection with a firm that does work with City Hall.

All four are renowned professionals within their fields, which makes them prized as commissioners but also sought-after by firms looking to build in Santa Monica.

“We can be replaced, that’s not the issue,” Folonis said, “but it will be hard to find highly motivated, qualified, experienced architects that would be interested in serving on a board or commission that have absolutely no work whatsoever in the city of Santa Monica under a development agreement.”

The number of development agreements has increased in recent years as city staff has worked to revamp the Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, which dictates development in Santa Monica.

It’s a problem City Hall is well aware of, said Mayor Richard Bloom.

The exodus of the architects and a landscape architect has deprived key boards of expertise that would be useful for the large amount of development happening in Santa Monica, Bloom said, which hurts the City Council.

“The ARB and the Planning Commission provide a lot of valuable input and advice to the City Council,” Bloom said. “They have a lot of independent authority, so the background and expertise of board and commission members is extremely important for the City Council to consider when we’re doing appointments.”

Unlike the Planning Commission, which has a residency requirement, members of the ARB can be recruited from outside of the city. The City Council may look at exercising that option as it searches for new members to appoint to the board, Bloom said.

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