The Fair Political Practices Commission has advised Tehachapi City Councilman Kenneth R. Hetge to recuse himself from participating in votes about Tehachapi Municipal Airport FAA grants, discussing repairs at the airport, voting on the airport budget, and speaking about the airport at City Council meetings as a member of the public.

The topic was raised at the Sept. 3 City Council meeting during the approval of an FAA grant application and request for Caltrans funding for the design phase for the relocation and reconstruction of Taxiway A at the airport.

Mayor Susan Wiggins, Councilman Phil Smith and Councilwoman Joan Pogon-Cord all voted in favor of submitting a grant application, while Hetge recused himself and Councilman Michael Davies was absent. 

The council's vote allows the city to apply for $189,000 from the FAA, and if that is received, then the city can ask for an additional $9,450 from Caltrans Aeronautics Division.

Hetge asked City Attorney Tom Schroeter and Wiggins if they were positive about the need for Hetge to recuse himself.

"FPPC has already said that you have a conflict of interest," Schroeter said. He added, “You have to leave the room, otherwise you are influencing the discussion.”

Wiggins said, “We are all sure.”

The City Council meeting agenda packet included three letters from the FPPC in which it provides advice on three questions regarding potential conflicts of interest.

The letters were issued after councilmembers voted unanimously at the Jan. 7 City Council meeting to send a letter to the FPPC seeking guidance. Hetge recused himself from the vote on sending the letter to the FPPC requesting guidance and left the room.

The FPPC has the responsibility “for the impartial and effective administration of the Political Reform Act. The Act regulates campaign financing, conflicts of interest, lobbying, and governmental ethics,” according to fppc.ca.gov.

The commission is also required to forward any requests for advice to the Attorney General’s Office and the Kern County District Attorney’s Office, which the letters state was done, with no written response from either entity, said the letters.

The letters

A business owned by Hetge at the airport poses a financial interest in the design of the runway, discussing repairs and FAA grants, according to the Feb.19 FPPC letter.

“In the short run, the service that the council member's business provides could be negatively impacted by renovations that would make the hangars less easily accessible. In the long run, the business could be positively impacted because the airport land would be improved and in compliance with FAA standards,” said the Feb. 19 FPPC letter that was sent to the city attorney.

Hetge and his wife have owned a business called Recover Your Cub on airport grounds for more than 10 years. The business provides aircraft rental and maintenance services.

Government code Section 1090 is cited in the FPPC guidance letter and states that “members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members,” according to leginfo.legislature.ca.gov.

The FPPC letter also states that Hetge may take part in the final vote to adopt or reject the General Fund Budget after the separate decision regarding the airport budget is discussed and voted on. And he may approach the council on matters of his personal business, although he is “prohibited from directly or indirectly attempting to influence the City Council in the execution of a contract,” according to the FPPC July 25 letter.

In an interview with Tehachapi News, Hetge expressed concern about city residents and airport users having an adequate voice in airport matters.

“It’s a very sad period of time for the city residents that have a level of expertise from being excluded in city discussions,” Hetge said in an interview. He added that as of Aug. 31, he has closed his business.

Communications with a radio program, writing a newspaper article or speaking with a reporter is one question addressed in an FPPC letter.

“We can only conclude that you are not generally prohibited from public communications not intended to influence the execution of the contract by the City Council. However, you may wish to seek additional advice from the Attorney General’s Office,” according to the FPPC letter dated April 17 letter to Hetge.

Public comment

Members of the public commented on the future changes for the airport and what they see as a lack of representation during the City Council meeting.

City resident James Roberts said, “It’s too bad that Councilman Hetge can’t be here, because he probably knows more about this airport, being a FBO (fixed based operator).” He then asked if the airport would be closed, about documents and information about run-up areas.

John Smith, an engineer at Tartaglia Engineering who is working with the city on the grant, responded to the request of Airport Manager Ashley Whitmore to come before the council to answer questions.

“We are sensitive to the needs and the uses of the Tehachapi (Municipal) Airport, including the businesses that are on the airport. We have no intention or no desire to adversely impact one business or one tenant over another,” Smith said.

He added, “It’s anticipated that when the project gets further along in the design process there will be a meeting with users and tenants, in which the phasing plan would be presented to them and there would be a candid discussion.”

Whitmore added that a majority of the work would be accomplished at night.

FAA grant

The $4.9 million project focuses on the removal of the existing south side parallel and connecting taxiways and reconfiguration of taxiway A, plus drainage improvements. The taxiway is to be shifted 28 feet away from the runway and toward the south side of the airport where hangars are located.

The FAA funding accounts for 90 percent of the funds. Caltrans matches 5 percent and the city sponsors the remainder, according to documents in the Dec. 17, 2018 City Council agenda.