A long-time Commerce resident and 24-year city employee has announced he is running for a seat on the Central Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors: The election takes place in November 2014.
However, Jason Stinnett isn’t just any local resident, he’s Commerce’s interim public information officer, a job that requires him to interact with the media, and most people would assume, put the city’s best foot forward when doing so.
That includes his bosses, on staff and on the city council.
Often outspoken, Stinnett has not shied away over the years from criticizing things he did not like in Commerce, including some past council members. Nor has he refrained from actively supporting others.
Some of those activities are now drawing fire from critics who question his motives.
Now he’s running for a seat on the Commerce-based Central Basin, which in recent months has been awash in controversy, including a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into political corruption in which the FBI served the water agency with subpoenas seeking documents related to contracts for groundwater storage plan and personnel records.
Central Basin board members Art Chacon and Robert Apodaca, who are both up for reelection next year, are among those whose records were sought by the FBI in August, the LA Times reported. In connection with that investigation, the FBI also zeroed-in on another elected official, Sen. Ron Calderon, whose office in Sacramento was raided in June.
Stinnett says working families in Southeast Los Angeles County deserve better. He hopes to unseat Chacon who represents Division III, which includes the cities of Commerce, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, Walnut Park, Monterey Park, Vernon and unincorporated areas of East Los Angeles.
But now, like the water district, he too is facing criticism for his political activities and connections.
In a recent recall notice served on Commerce council members, Stinnett is accused of receiving a pay raise for running the reelection campaigns of Mayor Pro Tem Lilia Leon and Councilmember Tina Baca del Rio. A third member of the council, Ivan Altamirano, has also been targeted for recall.
An article in the Los Cerrito News accused Stinnett of being “set to cash in” on his relationship with incumbents. In an opinion piece penned for the publication, Publisher Brian Hews accuses Stinnett of running the campaigns on city time and being a political “king” and a “Calderon minion.”
Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, told EGP he’s not familiar with the politics in Commerce, but Stinnett, like any city employee, can work on a political campaign as long as he takes time off from work, or is doing those activities on weekends, nights or vacations.
Stern said he does not think Stinnett’s off-the clock political activities, even supporting the campaigns of members of the city council who can fire him or give him a raise, necessarily represent a conflict of interest.
“It’s certainly not a legal conflict of interest that I know of… its not uncommon for people, employees, to work briefly on campaigns [in their free-time] for their bosses,” Stern told EGP.
Stinnett strongly denies that he has done anything wrong. Las t week he told EGP that he worked on the campaigns on his own time and a member of the city’s labor union, and has not broken any conflict of interest laws.
In a Sept. 27th Letter to the Editor published online but not by Hews’ publication Stinnett said the publication’s accusations without merit. He said all the appointments or meetings he attended that have come into question were pre-approved as personal leave-time or took place on his days off.
While he admits he has worked with local leaders and candidates in neighboring cities to help elect “honest officials,” he is quick to say that he is not politically associated with Senator Ron Calderon or his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon.
“I find it curious Mr. Hews would refer to me as a ‘Calderon minion’ in the same editorial in which he quotes Mr. Art Chacon, who took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both Calderon brothers,” Stinnett wrote in this response to Hews’ Op-Ed.
“I think they are concerned with the Southeast culture of corruption… I think they know that I’m not susceptible to corruption,” he told EGP.
He says the accusations are politically motivated and “very deliberately crafted” to “mislead the public.”
Commerce City Manager Jorge Rifa, who declined to state whether Stinnett’s political activities are affecting his work for the city, told EGP that the city is still actively recruiting for the permanent PIO position. He noted that Stinnett has thrown his hat into the ring along with many others.
“He has applied, I’m not at liberty—at this point and time—to talk about the recruitment process,” Rifa told EGP, adding he wants to remain impartial during the hiring process.
Stinnett, who is campaigning under the last name Govea-Stinnett to reflect his Latino roots, told EGP he activism in Commerce has almost cost him his job on several occasions. He cited examples of speaking during public comment at Commerce City Council meetings, publishing opinion pieces critical of the city, and posting public records on his old watchdog website SaveCommerce.com
Stinnett defends his performance as the city’s interim public information officer, and says he believes he’s done an excellent job communicating with the media and stakeholders regarding city information, and he’s drawn very clear and careful lines not to cross his personal and professional activities.
“For me, one does not preclude the other… good government benefits residents and city employees,” he said.
Stinnett says he has not sought formal support from Commerce council members for his candidacy in the upcoming Central Basin election, but said the city is aware that he is running. He has already received support from the labor union that represents Commerce municipal employees. The Central Basin election is scheduled for November 2014, the candidate filing period has not yet opened.