Secrecy breeds corruption. When the public’s business is conducted illegally behind closed doors, the public pays the price, whether it’s Cudahy, Bell or the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. The tales of Cudahy and Bell have been splayed on the front pages of the local papers, but the SGVCOG’s story has been relegated to the occasional blurb. It shouldn’t be.
The SGVCOG is a joint powers authority formed in 1994 that serves the San Gabriel Valley area. The agency membership is comprised of 31 local cities, three Los Angeles County Supervisorial Districts and three local water agencies. Each agency appoints a representative to sit on the governing board.
But within the COG, violations of the Public Records Act and Ralph M. Brown Act, which govern how public agencies conduct their business, the arrest and prosecution of the executive director, Nicholas Conway on four felony charges, conflict of interest allegations, and questions about “funny” accounting, including the use of an unlicensed accountant and multiple budgets, appear to be the norm rather than exception.
Some of these issues, including the conflict of interest issues, date back at least six years. Which begs the question: Who was supposed to be guarding the henhouse? The easy answer, and the answer you will most likely hear, is the executive director, Mr. Conway (a.k.a. “the Fox”.) The more complicated answer is we are all to blame – our elected officials who sit on the board, the public who failed to attend meetings or monitor its activities, the local newspaper that was more interested in weekly meetings about the battery recycling program than investigating the misuse of public funds.
First, will our elected officials that sit on the SGVCOG governing board please stand up? No…seriously! STAND UP! We elected you, not Conway. You formed the SGVCOG and hired Conway and his staff, but then neglected to perform any of the supervisory duties that we expect of you. Materials should have been read, budgets reviewed, contracts scrutinized, and questions asked – but none of this happened. Our leaders have clearly failed us.
In fact, the SGVCOG continues to pay Conway’s company, Arroyo Associates, Inc., under each and every contract – including those tied to the felony charges. In June alone, Arroyo Associates, Inc. was paid some $66,000. This doesn’t include the new interim executive director’s salary, approximately $8,000 per month. Conway continues to have full and unrestricted access to staff – after all, the staff is employed by Arroyo, and the SGVCOG and Arroyo offices are one and the same. The proposed solution to this problem? Just hire the Arroyo staff as employees of the SGVCOG. Some board members have even contacted some of the local member agencies, telling them Conway is the good guy and will be reinstated as soon as he is acquitted.
Next, to the public. It has been said that we get the government we deserve. President James Garfield once said, "The people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption.” Who knew the SGVCOG was around back then?
But he also said, “If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them…." Unfortunately, we haven’t demanded much. Over the past 18 months, a member of the public has rarely attended a SGVCOG meeting. A member of the public once showed up to a meeting where there were no chairs available for the public. When a staff member got up to get him a chair, Conway stopped him, saying, “Let him stand.” But even now that the corruption has been uncovered, where is the outrage? After Bell, citizens took to the streets, demanding change. Yet, no one is voicing their outrage about the SGVCOG.
And finally, to our local news agencies. What happened to being the fourth pillar of democracy? You would think that with the scarce resources of the local newspapers these days, someone would put them to better use. I don’t want to hear about a Monrovia woman’s dinosaur mystery was solved on a reality TV show or how a tree branch feel on a Cadillac in San Dimas (both are stories on the San Gabriel Valley Tribune website today.)
What I and the public desperately want are for our local papers to cover important local issues, like the secrecy and corruption at the SGVCOG, and not just function as a press release depository for the self-serving statements put out by our local agencies. Some news agencies are doing a great job at this, some are not. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.
Removing Conway as executive director is like using a Band-Aid to close a gaping wound – it just isn’t enough. If the SGVCOG is going to continue to exist, there need to be wide-spread changes. The public needs to stand up and demand that those changes are made. Our elected leaders need to listen and clean up the agency they created. And the newspapers need to report on it all, and leave the battery recycling program coverage for another day.