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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006 | Supporters of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposition to allow businesses to compete for city work cried foul on their opponents’ campaign tactics Wednesday, saying a group that labels itself as being firefighters and cops is being used as a front for other city workers.
Proposition C backers said the Police and Fire Fighters Against Proposition C committee was misleading voters by playing itself up as a group of public safety officers when its biggest financial donor was a labor union that represents the city’s sanitation and maintenance workers.
At issue Wednesday was a television ad that began running locally this week that warns voters that the passage of Proposition C could lead to the outsourcing of police and fire jobs.
“Vote no on Proposition C: They’re playing with fire,” says the mustachioed Battalion Chief John Thomson, an official at City Firefighters Local 145, in the ad as images of burning buildings and flashing sirens play.
While the commercial was produced by the firefighters union that Thomson represents, it began running locally this week at the expense of the Police and Fire Fighters Against Proposition C committee. More than half of the group’s expenses have been paid for by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, an organization that includes the city of San Diego’s blue-collar union, Local 127, as a member.
“This organization appears to be a political shell operation,” said local attorney Bob Ottilie, who is helping the effort to pass Proposition C.
Of the $175,458 that the committee has raised in the past 10 days, $99,000 is from AFSCME-related groups. An AFSCME group that listed a Sacramento address was reported to have donated $44,000 to the group last Friday, and the union’s political office in Washington, D.C., gave the committee $55,000 on the same day.
Proposition C backers said the $55,000 donation raises more questions about the group because any donation greater than $50,000 triggers a requirement under the California Fair Political Practices Act that the specific donor be named in advertisements.
AFSCME’s $55,000 donation was made on Friday, but ads that began running on Tuesday did not list the union as a major donor until Wednesday afternoon at one local channel.
Jennifer Tierney, a consultant for the anti-Proposition C committee, said the campaign committee complied with the law, which allows it five days to update its ads with the new disclaimer.
But the lawyer for the Yes on B&s;C campaign wrote letters to television stations around town, urging them to stop running the ad until the disclaimer was changed.
James Sutton, the group’s attorney, said the law’s intention was to allow campaigns enough time to change their ads if they were already in progress. Sutton pointed out that the $55,000 was received several days before the commercial started airing.
He said the Police and Fire Fighters Against Proposition C committee could be fined three times as much as they paid for the ads. The City Clerk’s Office reported that the committee had paid $163,000 for airtime as of Tuesday.
Sanders’ measure has largely been financed by hoteliers, developers and aspiring conservative political figures.
The public denouncement by the proposition’s supporters Wednesday illustrates the elevated pitch of the campaign, which laid nearly dormant just a month ago but has become more contentious since the public safety issue became a rallying cry by opponents.
Proposition C’s opponents were bolstered by a Superior Court judge’s ruling in September that allowed them to argue that the city’s police and firefighting functions could hypothetically be outsourced under the proposed measure. The mayor left out language barring the privatization of public safety jobs, arguing that the City Charter already prohibited it.
As foes of the initiative ushered the public safety argument into the debate, Sanders and his backers struck back, arguing that the claim is being used as a Trojan Horse for the city’s other unions to move into the debate under the guise of protecting police and fire jobs.
The mayor gathered with his backers to publicly deny the notion that he would ever outsource public safety jobs, calling the argument a “scare tactic” and assuring voters that he would allow them to explicitly ban the idea when they returned to the ballot box in 2008. A spokeswoman for the Yes on B&C campaign said the snafu prompted the campaign to conduct new polling.
Skeptics are trying to distinguish what qualifies as a public safety employee. The current definition does not include forensic specialists, 9-1-1 operators or police car mechanics. The city’s paramedic service is performed by a mix of public and private employees already – an arrangement that the unions and Sanders agree on.
Additionally, one law-enforcement duty – writing red-light tickets – has been partially handled by cameras.
Tierney, the consultant for Police and Fire Fighters Against Proposition C, said the campaign finance statements don’t include the “extensive involvement” of the police and fire unions. She also said that her committee was better equipped to handle the campaign than another group, known as Citizens Against Corruption, which is made up of civic and labor leaders and espouses the potential bad that comes with for-profit companies’ involvement in government.
In addition, firefighters union vice president Frank DeClerq said his board is meeting Saturday to contemplate donating a larger amount of money than the $10,000 they have already given Tierney’s group.
(Correction: The original version of this story erroneously reported that the Police and Fire Fighters Against Proposition C committee had purchased $132,400 in advertising airtime due to incorrect figures provided by the City Clerk’s Office. The total airtime purchased by the committee was $163,000. We regret the error.)
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