Legal battle continues over campaign finance measures in Vista

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San Diego Union-Tribune

A legal battle over two competing campaign finance measures on the November ballot in Vista isn’t over yet.

The measure sponsored by the City Council got the most votes, and attorneys for both sides in the dispute say it will remain law for now no matter what a three-judge appeals court rules.

But yesterday, the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego heard arguments over whether the other measure, put on the ballot by a political action group, would have been unconstitutional had it passed, or whether it’s moot at this point.

It could be an important decision to officials with The Oaks Project, the Santa Monica-based group that put Proposition W on the ballot. A ruling for the city would prevent the group from reintroducing the initiative in Vista and could bolster legal arguments against similar Oaks Project measures approved by voters in San Francisco and Santa Monica.

The court adjourned yesterday without ruling or saying when it might act.

Proposition W was placed on the ballot through signatures gathered by Oaks Project workers. Proposition V was sponsored by the City Council afterward.

The council voiced concerns that Proposition W was an unconstitutional infringement of speech, then directed City Attorney Wayne Dernetz to sue the Oaks Project to remove the measure from the ballot.

A Vista Superior Court judge sided with the city in September, ruling that the measure should be dropped because it restrained political donations, long considered by courts as a constitutional right of free speech. Proposition W would have prohibited elected city officials and high-level staff members from accepting gifts, campaign contributions or employment from anyone to whom the city had awarded a contract, tax break or zoning variance.

The proposition remained on the ballot, however, after an 11th-hour appeal by Oaks Project lawyers to the 4th District resulted in a stay of the lower-court ruling.

The City Council-backed Proposition V is more lenient than Proposition W. It limits contributions to those seeking office to $300 per donor. It also prohibits any city official who leaves city employment from representing clients before the City Council for one year, but it does not prohibit them from being employed by anyone.

Vista’s voters passed both measures, but under the law, Proposition V took precedence because it received the most votes. It garnered 10,356 yes votes with 5,898 opposed, while Proposition W received 9,599 yes votes with 6,605 opposed.

Attorney John Ramirez, who is representing the city, argued yesterday that the judges should rule on the appeal despite the lower court’s decision, while Proposition W attorney Fredric Woocher asked them to declare its appeal and the earlier ruling moot.

Dernetz said it would be “more cost-efficient” for the city to pursue an appeal now than to go to trial in the future. He said Vista had paid about $30,000 to lawyers during the lower-court trial, and between $6,000 and $7,000 for the appeal work.

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