Image: falseStatement: “Councilmember Sherri Lightner voted to hand government employee unions $28 million in bonuses,” say mailers distributed by Ray Ellis, her opponent in the District 1 City Council election, and the Lincoln Club of San Diego County.

Determination: False

Analysis: Voters in San Diego’s northwestern neighborhoods have received at least two mailers this month accusing Councilwoman Sherri Lightner of political corruption. One ad was paid for by Ray Ellis, who is campaigning to unseat Lightner; the other was funded by the Lincoln Club of San Diego County.

The mailers say Lightner voted to give $28 million in bonuses to city workers “just for doing their jobs” and that government unions are now spending big bucks to re-elect her. One ad accuses Lightner of rewarding campaign supporters with taxpayer dollars.

We received electronic copies of the mailers from Lightner supporters and confirmed their validity with Ellis’ campaign and the Lincoln Club. We have redacted the supporters’ addresses from the mailers shown in the graphic below.

Both mailers refer to a now defunct program known as Bid to Goal. Created in the 1990s, the program aimed to save money by encouraging city workers to find efficiencies in their jobs. In exchange for helping the city’s bottom line each year, workers could receive up to $4,000 in extra pay.

At first, the program was only available to wastewater treatment employees. But in subsequent negotiations with employee unions, the city gradually expanded the benefit to all water and wastewater functions.

City officials long touted the program as an innovative partnership. In 2002, Bid to Goal received an award from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and was a finalist for an award from Harvard University’s school of government.

But that mood changed in the wake of San Diego’s financial crisis. City officials questioned whether the program was worthwhile and launched an audit of its activities. Among other findings, the city discovered it had paid about $28 million in bonuses for work completed between the 2004 and 2008 fiscal years.

The $28 million figure from the audit matches the figures now floating around in campaign mailers, but the timing of the payments don’t sync with the broad accusations being levied against Lightner. There is no evidence to back up the claims.

Lightner entered office in December 2008 — six months after the 2008 fiscal year ended. She never voted to give city workers $28 million in bonuses through the incentive program because she wasn’t on the City Council yet.

Bid to Goal first came before Lightner in 2010. The City Council, including Lightner, authorized spending $190,000 for additional auditing of the program. At that point, she hadn’t been required to approve the actual program because it was already operating under a five-year contract.

To back up the accusations against Lightner, one mailer cites her vote at a March 2011 City Council meeting. The meeting was supposedly when she “voted to hand government employee union members $28 million in bonuses.”

The description isn’t accurate. The proposal that came before the City Council that day allowed the mayor to eliminate Bid to Goal. Lightner voted in favor of ending the program.

But by voting to end the program, Lightner also potentially supported giving retroactive bonuses to workers. Employees had been paid about $7.2 million in bonuses for completing work in the 2009 fiscal year but hadn’t yet been compensated for the 2010 or 2011 fiscal years.

The council’s vote approved labor agreements that would retroactively pay employees for those two years once audits of Bid to Goal had been completed. Those audits are still in the works, so it is unknown how much extra pay — if any — will be provided to workers for the two years.

To review, Lightner didn’t vote to give workers $28 million in bonuses between the 2004 and 2008 fiscal years because she wasn’t on the council. She also didn’t vote to give bonuses in the 2009 fiscal year because the program had been approved by her predecessors.

And it’s unknown whether any bonuses will be provided as a result of her March 2011 vote. No payments have been made because the city hasn’t completed audits of the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years.

We contacted both Ellis’ campaign and the Lincoln Club about this Fact Check and requested any evidence showing that Lightner had voted to give government unions $28 million in bonuses. They provided none.

Tony Manolatos, a spokesman for the Lincoln Club, said the organization had merely adopted the accusation from one of Ellis’ campaign mailers.

“Some of the mail we put out is based on what we grab based on other campaigns and what candidates have already put out. This is one of those times,” Manolatos said. “We didn’t come up with that. It was already out there and we grabbed it.”

Since official city records don’t support the statement, we’ve rated it False. We also found a couple smaller points from the mailers worth clarifying:

• The ads suggest Lightner has received campaign cash from union workers who benefitted from Bid to Goal, but the connection isn’t that clear. The program only applied to members of two city unions and neither organization had endorsed Lightner or made independent expenditures in her favor, according to campaign records available at the time the mailers were sent. Lightner had mainly received financial support from the city’s firefighters and police officers unions, whose members didn’t receive extra pay from the programs.

• One ad suggests the $28 million in bonuses could’ve instead paid for additional police officers, libraries, park acres and pothole repairs. The claim confuses how the city’s budget works. Funding for the programs came from a pot of money that can only be spent on water and wastewater functions.

Ellis’ campaign did not return messages Thursday and Friday seeking comment.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about the District 1 City Council election, local government and creates infographics. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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