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Our View: Blackburn, supervisors mishandled slippery fish

Earlier this week, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors ducked a decision on Supervisor Chuck Blackburn's travel claim, in which he is asking the county to foot the bill for a trip he made in January to Sacramento to attend a retirement dinner for the outgoing executive director of the California Fish and Game Commission.

In a curious bit of political maneuvering, the supervisors instead referred the matter to the county Fish and Game Commission. On Thursday night, that body voted unanimously to recommend that the county pay Blackburn's travel bill. But that settles nothing. The county Fish and Game Commission acts only in an advisory capacity to the Board of Supervisors, which now will apparently get another opportunity to make a decision on Blackburn's travel claim — exactly what the supervisors should have done in the first place.

We can only hope the whole thing will be handled better when it comes before the supervisors again, likely at the board's March 14 meeting.

It was Blackburn who placed the matter on the board's agenda this past Tuesday. He was appealing County Auditor Christie Babich's determination that his trip to Sacramento for a retirement dinner was not in accord with the county's travel policy and that therefore he would have to pay the $527.45 travel bill himself.

While we have some real qualms about the travel claim itself, we don't take issue with Blackburn's decision to appeal Babich's denial of his request for payment. He has a right to appeal and here at least he followed proper procedure.

But Blackburn really stepped into some stinky water when he not only interjected himself into the board's discussion of the matter but then also voted — essentially casting the deciding vote in a 3-2 tally — on whether it should be referred to the county Fish and Game Commission.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission, created as a result of the passage in 1974 of the Political Reform Act, makes clear that public officials who have a direct financial stake in a decision made by the board on which they sit should neither participate in the discussion leading up to that decision nor vote on the matter.

Blackburn had, and still has, a direct financial stake in this decision. In fact, his stake couldn't get much more direct than when he asks the county — the taxpayers of Del Norte — to pay this bill so he doesn't have to.

Questioned by The Daily Triplicate, Blackburn pleaded ignorance to the possibility that he has a conflict of interest or that his conduct was outside the rules of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Maybe so, but ignorance of the law is no excuse.

To his credit, Blackburn has offered assurance that he will recuse himself from all future deliberation of the matter. Blackburn needs to do just that, as he and all elected public officials must make sure they keep the interests of the people ahead of their own.

— The Daily Triplicate

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