Campaign reform measure back in court

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North County Times

The group behind a failed campaign finance reform initiative that was challenged by the city of Vista will ask an appeals court today to throw out a ruling in the case that found the initiative was unconstitutional.

“We’re confident that the case will be thrown out tomorrow,” said Carmen Balber, a staff organizer for the Oaks Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that sponsored the initiative. “(But) it’s entirely irrelevant. Vista’s case was to get us off the ballot and they didn’t do it.”

City officials said the case is important because if the measure is unconstitutional, other cities might be freed from enacting it.

Vista was one of six cities in the state targeted last year by the Oaks Project, a statewide group formed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The group launched efforts in each of those six communities to put the campaign finance reform initiative before voters in November.

A petition signed by 5,400 local voters successfully forced Vista to put the initiative on the ballot, but the city sued the Oaks Project, saying the measure was unconstitutional because campaign contributions are a form of free speech.

The initiative —- dubbed Proposition W —- received support from roughly 59 percent of voters in Vista, but was eclipsed when 64 percent supported a competing campaign finance measure floated by the city.

However, the Oaks Project initiative passed in other communities, including Pasadena, which is now supporting Vista’s lawsuit. If the initiative is deemed unconstitutional, it would affect every municipality that was forced to put it on the ballot.

“If the court rules Proposition W is invalid, that would be decisive in … finding it unconstitutional in all the other cities.” Vista City Attorney Wayne Dernetz said.

Prop. W would have prohibited an elected official from receiving more than $50 for five years after he or she approves a “public benefit” project. A public benefit is defined as a project or service worth $25,000 or more that involved personal services, sale of property, lease agreements or exclusive franchises.

In September 2000, Superior Court Judge David B. Moon Jr. ruled that Prop. W was unconstitutional and ordered it stricken from the ballot.

The Oaks Project appealed Moon’s decision and an appellate court put the Oaks initiative back on the ballot and issued a stay on the case until after the election to determine if the initiative was unconstitutional.

Now, attorneys for the city of Vista will ask the panel of judges to uphold Moon’s decision that Prop. W is unconstitutional.

The three-judge panel will have 90 days to issue a decision on the appeal.

In the meantime, Vista’s campaign reform measure, Proposition V, is still in effect. It limits campaign contributions to $300 per individual or corporation; requires stricter disclosure over the amount of contributions; limits anonymous contributions to $200 per campaign; and prohibits laundering of money by donating in someone else’s name.

Councilman Ed Estes Jr., who rallied support of Prop. V, said he is confident the court will strike down Prop. W as unconstitutional and said he believes voters will still have an effective campaign finance reform initiative.

“I think voters were looking for reform. A lot of them voted for Prop. W, but more voted for Prop. V,” Estes said.

Consumer Watchdog
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