New curbs sought on financial gains for Vista officials

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San Diego Union Tribune

VISTA — Activists associated with Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield would like voters to impose new restrictions on campaign contributions and other financial benefits to government officials.

They plan to begin collecting signatures soon to put “the city of Vista Taxpayer Protection Amendment of 2000” on the November ballot.

Similar efforts by the Oaks Project, a Santa Monica nonprofit group associated with Nader and Rosenfield, will be undertaken in five other California cites. A statewide initiative could be launched.

The proposed law would prohibit any city official from receiving campaign contributions, gifts, honorariums or employment worth more than $50 from a person or corporation after a decision is made approving a “public benefit” to that individual or corporation.

It would ban contributions and gifts for five years after the “public benefit” is approved, or for one year after the official leaves office, whichever comes first.

A public benefit is defined in the measure as any contract or agreement in which the city would pay $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. In addition, a lease between the city and a private or corporate entity worth $25,000 or more over a 12-month period would be covered. Any person or entity who received an exclusive franchise that generated $25,000 or more annually in gross revenue would be covered.

“The voters should have the right to expect that an elected official is approving the deal without getting something for it,” said Bill Gallagher, an Oaks Project organizer and co-author of the initiative.

The measure also would apply to top appointed officials with discretionary powers, including the city manager, the redevelopment agency director, the planning director and planning commissioners.

“You better make a decision on the merits (of a project) and not on the basis of what personal gain will come from it,” said initiative co-author Robert Fellmuth, who holds the Price Chair of Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego.

The measure says that “knowing and willful” violation could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. Civil penalties could be imposed that would require the official to provide restitution of the personal and campaign funds to the city’s general fund and pay penalties up to five times the value.

Finally, the provision would allow any resident to file a lawsuit alleging a violation. A prevailing plaintiff would receive 10 percent of the civil penalties paid by the public official, and reasonable attorney’s fees and costs would be paid by the official named in the suit.

In addition to Vista, the activists hope to put the measure on municipal ballots next year in Irvine, Claremont, Pasadena, Santa Monica and San Francisco. The authors said the cities were selected because they represent a cross section of California.

But, they said, Vista politics indicate why the measure is needed.

In 1998, San Diego developer DDR OliverMcMillan and its officials and employees were the top contributors to the re-election campaigns of Mayor Gloria McClellan and Councilman Ed Estes Jr. Those contributions followed the council’s 1997 selection of the developer to build the redevelopment project.

McClellan reported receiving $3,500 from OliverMcMillan, its employees and associates, according to campaign financial disclosure statements. Estes received $2,600 from the developer and associates.

Brad Drake, a Vista resident and volunteer for The Oaks Project, said the OliverMcMillan vote and subsequent campaign contributions demonstrate the need for the initiative.

“When the voters see this (initiative) in front of them, they’ll immediately identify what’s wrong with the system,” said Drake, a self- employed computer programmer.

Estes said there was no link between the vote to award the contract to OliverMcMillan and receipt of campaign contributions after the vote.

In any case, he said, the measure could have the effect of increasing contributions prior to votes being taken.

“If you have a vote coming up, you could have public officials shamelessly shaking down contributors,” Estes said. “What this would do would allow special interests to push people into office. Once they got them into office, they wouldn’t have to worry about them. They’re set.”

City Attorney Wayne Dernetz said he has questions about the constitutionality of the proposal, but added it is premature to consider a challenge.

“The courts do not want to interfere with the electoral process. The courts will wait to see if it qualifies for the ballot and decide on it if it passes,” Dernetz said.

Fellmuth said he is confident that the initiative could pass legal tests.

Supporters have to collect 3,400 valid signatures to qualify the initiative for a November vote.

The Oaks Project was founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. It is affiliated with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which is headed by Rosenfield, who led the successful 1988 campaign for Proposition 103, an insurance reform measure.

Consumer Watchdog
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