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Friday, Aug. 1, 2008 | Months after his successful reelection, Mayor Jerry Sanders has returned $8,620 in campaign donations from supporters who had business pending before the city, according to campaign finance reports filed Thursday.

Those returned donations went back to housing developers, lobbyists and consultants who had business pending before the city. Several employees of Westfield Corp., which has a $900 million expansion of University Towne Center pending, got refunds. So did lobbyists who had defense contractor Blackwater and developer Sunroad Enterprises as clients.

The donations were not illegal. But Sanders promised during the campaign that he would not take money from anyone who had business at the city. As San Diego’s first strong mayor, with executive oversight over the city’s workforce, Sanders said it was inappropriate to collect donations from those with city business pending. At the time, the mayor was also reeling from a scandal over his political connections to Sunroad, which had been allowed to build an office tower 20 feet beyond federal hazard limits.

A voiceofsandiego.org review before the June 3 primary election of Sanders’ campaign finance disclosures showed that the mayor had accepted more than $19,000 from donors he’d promised to spurn. In a subsequent live television debate two days before the election, Sanders challenged the story’s accuracy, saying the review had inappropriately totaled donations from all employees of large firms — even if some employees may not have had specific business pending.

“When you start lumping that together, you put together huge numbers of people who aren’t involved at all,” Sanders said then.

Tom Shepard, the mayor’s political consultant, said the campaign’s subsequent analysis of questionable donations didn’t examine whether employees were inappropriately lumped together. He said such a step was not necessary, because the mayor had no discretion over the business of those individuals who’d been highlighted in the story.

Sanders didn’t return the majority of donations detailed in that story. He didn’t return 13 checks totaling $4,160 from contractors who received city contracts after making donations. Shepard said the mayor did not have discretion over those donors’ business.

Sanders also didn’t return $8,945 in donations from employees and lobbyists connected to the Otay Mesa Planning Coalition, a federation of major developers that has worked to update the industrial area’s community plan, its blueprint for future development, to allow for more residential development.

The coalition, which includes Pardee Homes and the Corky McMillin Cos., struck an unusual deal with the city in 2004, agreeing to pay for an overdue update to Otay Mesa’s blueprint. In exchange, the city agreed to present the City Council with one of the developers’ preferred alternatives for the plan update. The developers prefer a plan that allows more housing on what is now industrial land.

Shepard said the coalition’s dissolution in July 2007 ended its direct involvement. “They now have the same involvement as any other stakeholder group such as community residents, planning group, chamber of commerce, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail.

While the coalition has disbanded, the developers will still have an advantage over other stakeholders when the City Council considers approving one of several alternatives in coming months. The group’s preferred option will be among several presented to the council, and Sanders’ staff will offer the council a recommended proposal from among those.

Sanders also didn’t return donations from employees of organizations that receive arts funding from the city, which are included in the city budget prepared by the mayor. Shepard said Sanders doesn’t have discretion over that spending.

Thousands of donors gave to Sanders’ reelection campaign, which culminated in his June 3 win over Republican businessman Steve Francis. Shepard said donors’ checks must be deposited within 72 hours of receipt, making the review of each more challenging.

“There’s too many moving parts,” Shepard said. “It’s not a perfect system.”

Many of the donations identified by voiceofsandiego.org had given money months before the election. Several donors connected to Sudberry Properties, the developers of a Mission Valley project called Quarry Falls, gave in mid to late 2007. Their donations, totaling $2,240, were returned.

Sanders made his promise in an election where campaign finance was a key focus. Francis, the founder of AMN Healthcare, financed his own campaign, spending $4.7 million of his own funds. He used that as leverage to attack Sanders, repeatedly decrying the incumbent mayor as part of a “pay-to-play system” at City Hall.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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