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Monday, Oct. 20, 2008 | At the corner of Balboa Avenue and Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa, a billboard implores residents to vote against the permanent beach alcohol ban that is on the ballot this November. “Roger Hedgecock says NO on Prop ‘D’” the sign reads, borrowing an endorsement from the former San Diego mayor and current talk radio host. It then directs readers to a website: www.noonpropd.org.

The website is run by the San Diego Safe Beaches Coalition. The group claims to be independent from the liquor industry and points to its campaign disclosures as evidence of that. The group brought in $16,000 from a variety of local individuals and businesses, including a $10,000 donation from a non-profit organization known as FreePB.org.

But the billboard that directs readers to the website isn’t funded by the Safe Beaches Coalition. It’s financed by “You Empower Our Community,” a statewide committee that has raised more than $50,000 in 2008 from individuals and businesses associated with the tobacco and alcohol industry.

In a hotly contested race over whether alcohol should be allowed on city beaches, the debate has formed around the issues of personal freedoms. Opponents of Prop. D say they should be free to have a drink on the beach. Supporters of Prop. D say they should be free from the drinkers.

But a less prominent aspect of the battle is exactly who is shaping that debate. The financial backing behind the Prop. D campaigns, therefore, is particularly important in a battle where both sides are trying to highlight the motives behind their opponents’ campaign.

Opponents of a booze ban say that the majority of financiers for the ban are beachfront tenants who have a vested interest in alcohol being prohibited and keeping the beaches less populated.

“They don’t give a crap about whether other people come there or not,” said Jacob Pyle, a spokesman for the Safe Beaches Coalition.

On the other side of the issue, supporters of a beach alcohol ban point to the support of the initiative by the liquor industry as proof of the backers’ real financial motives.

Nearly half of the You Empower Our Community committee’s funding comes from the Neighborhood Market Association political action committee, which is headed up by Auday Arabo, a former candidate for the 78th Assembly District and a longtime booster of the grocers’ industry. The remaining money comes from 11 other individuals and businesses in the alcohol and tobacco industry.

The funding runs counter to the image Safe Beaches Coalition tries to paint of the Prop. D opposition movement.

In interviews this week, a spokesman for the committee stressed the group’s independence from the alcohol industry. “We made it a point on the Prop. D side of this to not take money from the liquor industry,” Pyle said.

The billboard funded by the alcohol, tobacco and grocery industries, however, directs people to Safe Beaches Coalition’s website, uses the coalition’s logo and was put together in partnership between the two committees.

And the two committees share something else in common. Until Friday afternoon, no record was on file with the city of San Diego that either You Empower Our Community or the San Diego Safe Beaches Coalition groups had spent money opposing Prop. D.

The late filing stemmed from an unusual system of campaign disclosures that, whether intentional or not, keeps the groups’ records at arm’s length from the public. It’s an arrangement unique to ballot propositions and, while their campaign disclosures are still public record, obtaining them means checking with the city of San Diego, the county registrar of voters and the Secretary of State to get a full picture of who donated funds to the campaigns.

Instead of registering itself as an opponent of the ballot measure, the Safe Beaches Coalition registered itself as a General Purposes Committee with the county, meaning that it could ostensibly spend money on ballot measures or candidates other than just Prop D. Its financial disclosure forms are therefore registered with the county and not tied to the proposition through the city’s online filing system.

Pyle said the committee originally intended to partner with other organizations in San Diego, such as the You Empower Our Community committee, and fight a number of issues in San Diego in perpetuity.

All of Safe Beaches’ money, however, has gone toward funding the campaign against Prop. D. It’s spent more than $38,000 to date opposing the measure. Pyle said he’s not sure whether the committee will stay together following the election.

Likewise, You Empower Our Community is registered as a statewide General Purpose Committee. Its financial disclosures therefore are kept with the California Secretary of State.

Because neither committee is specifically registered as being in opposition to Prop. D, they are required to file their expenses with the city, but not the contributions they receive.

Even if a voter were to gather the necessary information from the Secretary of State, the city of San Diego and the county Registrar, the voter would have to go through one additional roadblock to find out who funds the Safe Beaches Coalition.

The group’s biggest donor, FreePB.org, is a non-profit and it’s not immediately clear exactly who backs them. The organization’s treasurer, Rob Ryanerson said the organization’s budget is supported by about 100 individual donors as well as businesses that sponsor an annual beach cleanup. He said FreePB.org also hosts several fundraisers throughout the year that help finance the nonprofit. Pressed for documentation of the organization’s financing, Rynearson said to contact him at a later date.

Neither the Safe Beaches Coalition, nor You Empower Our Community had filed any financial disclosures with the city until Friday, more than two weeks after the end of the filing period and only 17 days before voters decide on the ballot measure.

Xavier Martinez, the treasurer for both committees, said the late filing was a result of a miscommunication with the city’s Ethics Commission.

Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city’s Ethics Commission, said that a late filing does not by itself trigger any sort of penalty from the commission, but it is something that it sometimes looks into. In deciding whether to investigate or take any enforcement action, the commission determines “the totality of the circumstances,” Fulhorst said. One of the most important criteria, she said, is whether the late forms were filed before the relevant election.

“In other words, did the public receive the appropriate information?” she said.

Meanwhile, the campaign supporting the alcohol ban, Safe Beaches San Diego, has raised nearly $70,000 to promote its cause.

The biggest financial supporter of the Yes on Prop D. committee is Henry F. Hunte, a La Jolla beachfront resident and the chairman of the H.G. Fenton development company. He’s put more than $10,000 into the campaign and a neighborhood association representing the community he lives in has donated an additional $5,000.

Among other major contributions supporting Prop. D. are: $5,000 from the Surfer Beach Hotel, a beachfront property at the end of Pacific Beach Dr.; $5,000 form Atlas Hotels, which owns the Town and Country Hotel in Mission Valley and is a major contributor to local political campaigns; and $5,000 from the Wave House Belmont Park LLC, which runs a bar and restaurant on the boardwalk in Pacific Beach.

Please contact Sam Hodgson directly at sam.hodgson@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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