San Benito County policymakers last week approved the hiring of a lobbyist to work on the county’s behalf at the state capitol to the tune of $120,000 over the next fiscal year. But some have balked at the $10,000 a month in retainer fees that will go to the Sacramento-based lobby firm, Stone Advocacy, and raised the specter of a potential conflict-of-interest on the part of one of the county supervisors, Robert Rivas, whose brother once worked with the lobby firm’s principal and founder, Kim Stone.
“Knowing someone does not create a conflict of interest,” Rivas said, who referred to Stone as an acquaintance. “I’ve held myself to the highest standards of the board of supervisors. I’ve been as transparent as I can be. Unfortunately, this is an attempt by political opponents to discredit me.”
Stone worked with Supervisor Rivas’ brother, Rick, when she was president of the Civil Justice Association of California, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group that lobbies against policy that would make it easier to bring lawsuits against business. The board of directors includes major companies such as JPMorgan Chase, The Dow Chemical Company, ExxonMobil Corporation, Wells Fargo Bank and Kaiser Permanente.
Stone left the lobby firm in December 2016 and Rick Rivas now works at Equality California as the San Francisco program manager.
The Board of Supervisors decided to hire Stone Advocacy after a search that started earlier this year.
The county placed an ad in a Sacramento news publication, Capitol Weekly, seeking letters of interest and proposals from California lobbying firms. The county received a total of seven proposals over the last five months and brought three before the supervisors at the December 12 meeting: Dimare, Brown, Hicks & Kessler LLC, Hurst Brooks Espinosa LLC and Stone Advocacy.
Each firm requested a monthly retainer, with Stone Advocacy and Dimare, Brown, Hicks & Kessler asking for $10,000. Hurst Brooks Espinosa was the lowest bid at $3,000.
“It’s 2017; it’s time for our county to get professional representation in Sacramento,” Supervisor Rivas said at the meeting.
Rivas, who was part of an ad hoc committee to find representation for the county alongside Chairman Jaime De La Cruz, nominated Stone Advocacy. Part of the lobbyist’s mandate is to advocate on important county issues like roads and transportation.
“When we were tasked with finding a county advocate, I looked for three things,” Rivas said by phone Monday. “I wanted the best to represent San Benito County, I wanted a firm with bandwidth to focus on our county and we need a proven advocate who knows how to deliver results.”
A motion passed 3-2, with De La Cruz and Supervisor Mark Medina dissenting.
Since the vote, Rivas’ brother’s connection to Stone has raised eyebrows. Rivas said it is just dirty politics at work.
Rivas is considering a run for the District 30 seat in the State Assembly next year, currently held by Anna Caballero, who cannot run for reelection because of term limits.
Rivas has yet to make an official announcement.
Furthermore, the Rivas brothers and Stone worked for Caballero during a previous campaign in 2006.
“I was employed as Anna Caballero’s field director,” Rivas said. “I didn’t know Kim then. My brother was campaign manager. This whole idea that we’ve worked together, it’s false. I’ve never been on the same payroll as Kim Stone.”
While Rivas acknowledged that his brother worked with Stone in the past, they haven’t worked together in over a year and a half.
County staff is currently in negotiations with Stone Advocacy to hammer out a one-year agreement. The contract does not require additional board action, as Chief Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa is authorized to execute the agreement per board direction on December 12.
Stone Advocacy’s scope of service is expected to be outlined in the contract currently under negotiation.
“I’m happy we’ve directed staff to begin negotiations,” Rivas said. “I’m not part of those. We directed staff to negotiate. I’m optimistic and hopeful staff can negotiate a good price to obtain her services. I think this is a step in the right direction for our county and the board of supervisors.”
According to county officials, Stone Advocacy will meet with a wide range of local community stakeholders in the coming weeks to help supervisors formulate a comprehensive legislative and advocacy agenda for the upcoming legislative session in Sacramento.
“The bottom line is Kim Stone is the very best,” Rivas said. “She had references from Anna Caballero and State Senator Anthony Cannella.”