San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye was thumbing through the 36 pages of financial disclosures of the campaign in favor of retaining the city’s strong mayor form of government when she hit on something she thought curious.

Cox Communications had donated almost $24,000 of free airtime to the campaign.

“To me, it’s very disturbing because I do think of them as public airways,” said Frye, an opponent of strong mayor. “I don’t think people should have unequal access to the public domain.”

But the practice isn’t as rare as Frye thought, and there are no federal, state or city rules against it.

Companies can give unlimited amounts to ballot measures and airtime counts as a non-monetary contribution. They don’t have to give the other side equal time.

Federal Communication Commission rules requiring equal time in election coverage refer to candidates for office, not ballot measures or initiatives, said Mark Berlin, an attorney in the FCC’s political office.

“There’s no equal time rule for issues,” Berlin said.

Cox isn’t shy about donating airtime when it supports a ballot measure. The cable and internet company did it in 2004, contributing at least $45,000 of free airtime to help strong mayor pass back then.

Cox also gave away airtime in previous campaigns for a school bond measure and for the construction of Petco Park, said Bill Geppert, a Cox senior vice president. Geppert added the company plans to donate airtime to a campaign in favor of a state water infrastructure bond.

Geppert said the company believed San Diego had outgrown a council-manager form of government. Strong mayor, Geppert said, allowed the city to undertake financial reform it might not have otherwise.

“In the view of our company and others in the business community it would be a taking a significant step backwards to go to a city-manager form of government,” Geppert said.

Cox also donated $15,000 to the pro-strong mayor campaign, and an additional $6,800 after last week’s campaign filing deadline. Along with the free airtime, Cox is the campaign’s single largest contributor.

Opponents of strong mayor, Geppert said, could have airtime on Cox, too. They would just have to buy it.

“Certainly they would have their prerogative to purchase time,” he said.

Two newspapers also donated online advertisements to the pro-strong mayor campaign, according to campaign filings. Pomerado Newspapers, which cover Rancho Bernardo, La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe among other communities in and around the city, contributed $300 worth of advertisements. San Diego Community News Group, which owns the La Jolla Village News and Beach & Bay Press, donated $150 worth of ads.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect a contribution made after last week’s deadline.


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