County moves to distance from MALT

11/24/2020

Marin County is reorganizing its partnership with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in response to allegations that the trust is acting as a government agency rather than the nonprofit it purports to be. Effective immediately, the Board of Supervisors will no longer appoint two residents to MALT’s 19-member board, and District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni has stepped down. 

Technically, Supervisor Rodoni served in a personal capacity, as did Supervisor Steve Kinsey before him, a loophole that maintained MALT’s independence. If the Board of Supervisors were to both fund MALT and appoint a supervisor to its board, the organization would be considered public and therefore subject to stricter conflict-of-interest rules. MALT says it follows the letter of the law whether public or private, but the land trust and the county made the joint decision last week to reorganize to remove any perception of potential conflict. 

“While the county is aware of nothing about the county’s and MALT’s former practices that violates any law… these changes will further clarify the separate governance structure of MALT as a nonprofit corporation that operates independently from the Board of Supervisors,” the county’s top lawyer, Brian Washington, wrote in a letter. 

Marin has awarded over $13 million in grants to MALT since 2014. The funds are raised by a quarter-cent sales tax and used to purchase development rights from agricultural landowners. Known as conservation easements, these agreements help protect open space and support the continuation of local agriculture. The easement cost, generally about half of the property value, is split between MALT donations and Measure A’s farmland preservation program, approved by 74 percent of voters in 2012. With this money, MALT has protected 11 farms and ranches from development, totaling 6,692 acres.

Mr. Washington declined to investigate a broader allegation that MALT defrauded Marin County when accessing these funds. The claims were brought forth by Kenneth Slayen, a Ross resident on a crusade against MALT after the land trust declined to partner with him to purchase a ranch for him to live on in 2015. Since then, he’s requested and received troves of county records about MALT and pursued investigations by the Fair Political Practices Commission, Marin County’s counsel and the Marin County District Attorney, to no avail.

Mr. Slayen has two sets of claims. One, that MALT violated conflict-of-interest rules by using Measure A money to purchase easements from board members and their families, a claim MALT disputes because board members recused themselves from decisions impacting their financial interests. Mr. Slayen’s argument hinges on MALT being considered a public agency.

In a 20-page defense to Mr. Washington, MALT explained why it qualifies as a private organization: The land trust was formed independently from the county, funding is primarily from donations, and its purpose is not one that governments traditionally perform.

The Fair Political Practices Commission and Marin County’s counsel have sided with MALT, and the district attorney has not responded. Mr. Slayen was required to ask the three bodies to look into the issue as a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit, which he will now pursue. 

“We never expected more, given the county’s enabling of MALT’s misconduct over many years,” Mr. Slayen’s lawyer Thomas Brown wrote in a statement. “We now look forward to vindicating in court Mr. Slayen’s efforts to expose MALT’s and Marin’s pervasive misconduct in their misuse of the taxpayers’ Measure A funds.”

The second set of claims allege that MALT inflated easement values to enrich its board members through the farmland preservation program. Mr. Slayen argues that MALT violated the False Claims Act, which criminalizes fraud against the government. He compared the value of six recent easements purchased from board members and argues that MALT overcharged the county by more than $4 million. 

MALT’s lawyer Ellison Folk said that Mr. Slayen does not understand how appraisals are calculated, and that he cherrypicked data to support his argument. Appraisals are compared to recent real estate sale prices of properties with conservation easements, not to other recent easement values. MALT follows the industry’s best practices, and appraisers are licensed and independent, she said.

“The allegations in the complaint are based on factual misstatements, are unsupported by the law, and are rooted in the animus of a disgruntled individual whose application for MALT assistance was rejected,” Ms. Folk wrote.

Yet MALT has admitted wrongdoing on one of its easements, purchased in 2017 from the Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch, in which board member Sam Dolcini has a 2.5 percent stake. The easement value was appraised twice, because the first appraisal was lower than MALT thought it should be. On its grant application to Marin County Parks, MALT did not disclose the first appraisal, thus receiving a higher grant. 

Three years later, while undergoing a land trust accreditation process, MALT told the county about the first appraisal, and the county asked MALT to return the $833,250 grant. Although Mr. Dolcini recused himself from the board’s discussion and vote on the easement purchase, he did help negotiate the sale alongside MALT staff beforehand. MALT is steadfast in its defense that the Dolcini-Beltrametti easement value was not inflated, only that the process was flawed. The land trust has since added a rule barring easement purchases from board members and their immediate families.

The Dolcini-Beltrametti easement flap was announced in May, two months after director of conservation Jeff Stump quietly stepped down. In July, executive director Jamison Watts resigned, saying he wanted to reinstitute a work-life balance. He starts a new position on Monday as the executive director of the Santa Lucia Conservancy, a land trust in the Carmel Valley. Marin County Parks is amending its policy to require that all recent appraisals be included in grant applications.

Mr. Washington declined to investigate the issue, saying that his team found no pattern of deception or specific instances of faulty information from MALT.  MALT’s acting director, Ray Fort, said the land trust “feels that our position on these issues is clearly vindicated by the county’s response.”

But Mr. Slayen is not satisfied. Alongside a civil lawsuit, he is writing a letter to the Marin County Civil Grand Jury detailing why easements purchased from board members were overvalued, with hopes that the independent watchdog will undertake a full-fledged investigation.

Measure A is set to expire in April. Marin County Parks director Max Korten said it will most likely be on the 2022 primary ballot for renewal.