Friday, Aug. 17, 2007 | A campaign committee that guided Mayor Jerry Sanders’ ballot initiatives to victory in November has continued to raise thousands of dollars after the election from donors who have business in front of City Hall for a cause that is currently unknown.

From Election Day through June, San Diegans for City Hall Reform raised $111,950 in political contributions from businesses and individuals that hail overwhelmingly from the real estate industry.

The purpose of the donations is unclear, as nearly all of the donations came several months following the campaign efforts that enacted two pieces of Sanders’ financial recovery platform, propositions B and C. The committee currently serves no specific cause, but has plodded on anyway, stockpiling checks to champion an effort to be named later and pay thousands of dollars to consultants, including the chief strategist for Sanders’ mayoral campaign, to keep an eye on the political scene.

“The question is, why are they giving money now?” said Bob Stern, president of Center of Governmental Studies, a public policy think tank based in Los Angeles.

The committee’s continued existence and activity illustrates one of the lesser known — but more powerful — ways Sanders’ boosters can support the mayor. The fund will likely be used as a political vehicle for Sanders in the June 2008 election, when San Diegans are slated to vote to change the city charter to recalibrate the balance of power between the mayor and City Council.

“I think everyone is assuming there will be something on the June ’08 ballot for charter reform, so we’re just watching the process right now,” said Janette Littler, a consultant for San Diegans for City Hall Reform.

Among the donors who have given to the committee after the Nov. 7, 2006 election are businesses whose proposals are at the mercy of the bureaucracy led by Sanders. Developers with building permits pending, an engineering firm bidding to upgrade a water treatment plant, and lobbyists whose clients have business in front of the Mayor’s Office are listed as donors for San Diegans for City Hall Reform.

Voters are expected to weigh in on whether the mayor will permanently become the executive overseeing the day-to-day functions of the city bureaucracy and other issues related to the mayor’s authority in June 2008. The issue has been a priority for Sanders, who has sought to consolidate power under his administration since taking office in 2005.

The committee appears ready to become a campaign war chest for promoting a mayor-friendly answer to a charter reform proposition.

The mayor’s connection to the committee is unofficial, but well-known. He served as the chief spokesman for the committee during the campaigns for propositions B and C, which he called the “tools we need to reform City Hall.” Proposition B requires new pension benefits for city workers to first gain voter approval, and Proposition C allows private companies to compete with city employees for municipal work. Both initiatives were campaign pledges Sanders made during his 2005 mayoral run.

Also, Sanders’ top campaign strategist and confidant, Tom Shepard, is a consultant for the committee. His agency earned $4,337 from the committee in 2007. Jean Freelove, the fundraiser for Sanders’ campaign in 2005, also works for the committee and received $9,709 this year.

Littler and Sanders mayoral spokesman Fred Sainz played down Sanders’ link to the committee. “I would argue that there is not an existing relationship,” Sainz said. “They were an elected official and campaign committee who had the same goal.”

Littler claims the committee is comprised of donors who are dedicated to “transparency in government” and a “strengthened system of check and balances.” But the group lacks a clear policy direction, as there isn’t a body of overseers to decide which side of the charter debate the group will support. Littler said members of a steering committee will be announced soon.

Even if a group of decision-makers were empanelled to set the committee’s platform, a ballot proposition hasn’t been set. The citizens advising the City Council on charter revisions are only just beginning to make recommendations. The council, the final arbiters of what will appear on the ballot absent a signature drive, won’t make up its mind until the fall.

Sanders’ connection to the group was the most palpable characteristic known about the committee when the 37 donors wrote checks totaling $68,350 to San Diegans for City Hall Reform in 2007. Another 21 donations amounting to $43,600 were received in the latter days of 2006 following the election.

Craig Clark, a La Jolla-based developer, said the $2,500 he gave in April was to help Sanders, a politician he supports.

Clark had already contributed to the committee when it mattered. He cut a check for $2,000 on Oct. 19, 2006 — less than one month before voters cast ballots on propositions B and C. Clark provided San Diegans for City Hall Reform another $2,500 on April 5, even though it was squirreled away in the committee’s kitty or spent on consultants whose work plugging the ballot measures ended months earlier.

Clark said, “I never expect the money I give politicians is going to buy the decisions of a politician.” But when asked specifically about whether Sanders would take notice of his contribution to the committee, he offered a different answer.

“I guess I’m going to find out soon,” Clark said. “I understand he’s about to do something I don’t like at all.”

His firm, C.W. Clark, is a partner in the outfit chosen by the Unified Port of San Diego to redevelop Lane Field, a prime piece of real estate on the downtown waterfront. As mayor, Sanders will oversee the permitting for the development and its part within the city’s downtown redevelopment effort. On Aug. 6, Sanders urged the port to instruct the Lane Field developers to consult the city’s downtown planning agency about their project’s design.

He is one of the many individuals and businesses who have proposals in front of the city government that Sanders oversees.

A company proposing developments in Otay Mesa and University City gave the committee $7,000 on March 27. Garden Communities’ 644-unit residential project in Otay Mesa was issued permits one week earlier. A subsidiary of the firm called Costa Verde Developers won permits for a project one month prior to that. Review for its Monte Verde project is also being performed by the mayor’s Development Services Department. Phone messages left for the company were not returned.

Contractors, developers, lobbyists and other groups that rely on the city government for approval of their proposals have also anted up to the committee.

Sainz said Sanders is not taking notice of who is contributing to the committee, which could likely become the mayor’s political slush fund in the year ahead.

“We don’t know who contributed,” he said. “And we don’t care.”

Giving For Giving’s Sake

Some Post-Election Donors with Business in Front of the Mayor

Garden Communities: Donated $7,000 on March 27, 2007
The company has developments in Otay Mesa and University City before the mayor’s Development Services Department.

AT&T Employees PAC: Donated $2,500 on April 25, 2007
The political action committee represents the workers of a utility that pays the city for laying its phone lines beneath streets and sidewalks.

J. Todd Figi: Donated $1,500 on April 18, 2007
President of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego contributed to the fund just as the mayor was considering increasing the museum’s allocation in the city’s special promotions budget by $200,000 from the year before.

MWH Americas: Donated $2,500 on May 10, 2007
The company, which specializes in engineering wastewater and water projects, gave at a time when the city is raising money to upgrade both systems through bonds worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The committee has become a battery of high-dollar donations, as ballot measure committees enjoy more relaxed campaign finance rules than candidates.

While contributors are limited to giving $320 donations to a mayoral candidate’s campaign, they are allowed to give an unlimited amount to a ballot campaign.

Ballot measure committees are also allowed to hoard campaign cash in perpetuity. Candidates can raise money for up to six months after an election to rid their campaign of unpaid loans or bills. For example, Councilman Tony Young was recently fined $10,000 for failing to pay his campaign staff within the allotted period. However, ballot measure committees normally die off and don’t evolve like San Diegans for City Hall Reform.

Stacey Fulhorst, the executive director for the city’s Ethics Commission, said the restrictions on ballot measure committees are less stringent because courts have ruled that “you can’t corrupt a ballot measure.”

“They are far less-regulated because you don’t have the same appearance of corruption created when you have officeholder or someone seeking office,” Fulhorst said.

But to Sanders’ critics, the arrangement appears to allow political favors from businesses and individuals who are looking for some in return for their donations.

“That’s exactly what they’re going to do,” said political scientist Steve Erie, the director of University of California, San Diego’s urban studies department. “It’s pay to play.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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