Contribution-limit vote sought in Vista

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San Diego Union Tribune

VISTA — Voters may decide whether to restrict campaign contributions and other financial benefits to government officials here if an initiative qualifies for the ballot.

Activists affiliated with the Oaks Project have submitted petitions with about 5,400 signatures to the Vista city clerk in an attempt to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

Vista City Clerk Jo Seibert said the measure needs 3,192 valid signatures to qualify, and the county Registrar of Voters is checking them now. The petitions were turned in May 25.

The initiative seeks to prohibit city officials from receiving campaign contributions, gifts, honorariums, employment or other benefits worth more than $50 from any person or entity after approving a “public benefit” for that person or entity for a specified period.

“It’s going to lead to more responsive government when elected officials think about the taxpayers rather than their next campaign contribution,” said Brad Drake, a Vista resident who spearheaded the petition drive.

Vista is one of six California cities targeted by the Oaks Project, a Santa Monica-based, nonprofit group associated with consumer activists Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield. The Oaks Project is backing similar initiatives simultaneously in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Irvine, Claremont and Pasadena.

The Vista initiative specifically seeks to limit contributions or other personal gains to public officials whenever the city approves a contract or agreement in which it pays $25,000 a year or more for personal services, materials, supplies or equipment.

It also would apply to any purchase or sale of property worth $25,000 or more, or a lease between the city and a private entity worth $25,000 or more over a 12-month period. An exclusive franchise generating $25,000 or more over a 12-month period also would be covered.

A special tax benefit worth $5,000 or more that is not available to the general public also is included, as is any cash or cash equivalent exceeding $10,000.

Officials who would be affected by the initiative include members of the City Council and commissions, the city manager and other high-ranking staff members.

The restrictions would remain in place for five years from the date the public benefit was approved, or for one year after the public official leaves office, whichever comes first.

Drake said the measure is needed in Vista, where officials and employees affiliated with San Diego developer DDR Oliver McMillan contributed to council members’ re-election campaigns after the firm was chosen to build the city’s redevelopment project. That firm has since pulled out of the project.

“It’s the kind of thing that really (angers) people and really reduces their feeling of trust,” Drake said. He added that he believes the initiative, if passed, will help improve representation and the caliber of candidates who run for office.

Councilman Ed Estes Jr. said yesterday that state laws governing campaigns are adequate.

He also said some of the initiative’s requirements may be difficult to interpret. For example, he said, if the city contracts with Palomar College to conduct training seminars, would city officials be prevented from teaching part time at Palomar?

“It will create a bar that is so high that not only will you have trouble clearing it, you’ll be bumping into it without even realizing it,” Estes said.

Consumer Watchdog
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