Thursday, March 15, 2007 | Drive north through the cluttered heart of Mission Valley’s shopping malls, condos and big-box retailers and discover an expansive 224-acre quarry where Vulcan Materials Co. mines sand and gravel. There, Sudberry Properties wants to develop the rock mines into Quarry Falls, a 3,000-home neighborhood equipped with parklands, offices and shops.
To lay the foundations at Quarry Falls, the developer will need more than just the concrete that is mined in places like Mission Valley. It must also win the City Council’s approval to rezone the area for residential use before minivans can replace the dump trucks that currently flow in an out of the area.
To do so, Sudberry has taken a traditional route for navigating policy at City Hall: Hiring a cache of lobbyists to advocate to city officials on behalf the project, and writing the occasional check to an elected official’s campaign.
But when the Ethics Commission slapped City Councilman Tony Young with a $10,000 fine last week, the panel decided the campaign checks Sudberry and scores of other political donors penned for Young broke city election laws that forbade fundraising beyond 90 days after an election. The purpose of the law: to ensure that campaign contributions are more about aiding a candidacy and less about currying favor from an elected official.
Young solicited and accepted contributions for up to 18 months after his January 2005 election to rid himself of an expensive bind.
Young’s fine came as a result of his inability to pay $30,000 in “win bonuses” owed to two former campaign staffers within 90 days of that election. With the bulk of that tab remaining when the April 4, 2005 deadline arrived, Young continued to raise $47,635 up through June 2006. At some point, the commission believes, the money that flowed into Young’s coffers after the election couldn’t have helped him reach voters who filed into neighborhood polling places several months earlier.
“When you start giving money to people post-election, it could be with the understanding that it will influence their decisions more than it will be because you want them to win because they will do the best job, and that is dangerous,” said Bob Fellmeth, founder of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego.
The commission’s settlement with Young sheds light into some of the less-visible machinations of electoral politics in San Diego. The councilman’s infraction, which resulted in the highest ethics fine ever for a sitting city official, provides a practical case study of the city’s election law and the win-bonus contingencies that consultants say are rapidly becoming the norm in city elections.
For students of campaign laws such as Fellmeth, the settlement was seen as an assurance that elected officials can’t allow their ambitions to raise money for the campaign seep into their everyday business.
“The purpose behind the cutoff is that you don’t want a public official spending his or her entire time in office raising money to pay off their campaign debt,” Fellmeth said.
Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, agreed, but said that several factors likely contributed to Young’s lapse. First, San Diego’s $250 contribution limit for council races is relatively low when considering the sizable number of voters that candidates must reach during a campaign, Stern said. (Los Angeles, for example, has a $500 limit.) Second, Young’s arrangement to pay win bonuses instead of a flat rate or stipend back-loaded potential expenses that, upon winning, became an immediate debt, he said. Presumably, if no donors came to his aid, Young would have been left to foot the balance with his own money.
The Ethics Commission also noted the unusual nature of Young’s election, as he ran in a special election spurred by the August 2004 death of his former boss, Councilman Charles Lewis. With only a limited time to launch and carry out his campaign, Young did not have the usual time afforded to candidates for raising the money that was needed to run an effective campaign, the panel stated. April Goldstein, one of two campaign staffers promised a win bonus, said the payment was arranged because “there wasn’t enough time” to raise the necessary money before the election.
The commission also stated that it provided some leniency to Young because he was a novice candidate at the time. The city has since doubled the window to 180 days, partly, Fulhorst said, to accommodate the significant debt a campaign committee can occur because of win bonuses. Young declined to comment on last week’s fine.
Those circumstances aside, local political consultant Chris Crotty noted that it is easier for Young the councilman to lure donors to a fundraiser than it would be for Young the candidate. With that in mind, candidates and their staffers can spend the money they raise before Election Day on mailers, flyers and other expenses because, if they win, it’s a certainty that those with city business will line up for a chance to help an official who has a say over their proposals — whether they supported them during the election or not.
“That’s the reason some consultants use that method of payment, because they are aware that if you get that person elected to the City Council, they’ll have all sorts of people giving them money when they’re in office even though they didn’t give them money during the actual campaign,” Crotty said.
Stern said that that type of contingency breeds “rough and tumble” politics where consultants will try to win at any cost because their pay depends on it. Fellmeth noted that contingent lobbying is banned in the California legislature.
The Sudberry executives and their relatives, whose nine checks for $2,100 in January 2006 helped Young pay down the debt he incurred more than a year earlier, claimed they are removed from the quid pro quo world the others describe. They said they didn’t think their ability to help the councilman out a bind had any more influence than if they sat on the sideline.
Sudberry Vice President Stephen Haase said it was unlikely that the Quarry Falls project would receive extra favor if his $100 donation to Young had come a year earlier, when the commission said the debt the councilman was paying off was legal.
“City officials are going to meet with us either way because they want the best information they can get about a project like where we’re going in Mission Valley,” said Haase, who added that he thought his donation was being made for Young’s 2006 reelection bid and not to erase the debt from 2005. “I think if you take money out of the equation, you’re still going to have access either way, whether you’re trying to redevelop Quarry Falls or you’re a resident whose water main broke.”
But Haase said he does see the concern the city had when establishing the law. He said, “I think there is merit to a law that doesn’t allow candidates to spend an unlimited amount, because that’s a problem, for any business.”