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Chula Vista elected officials have for years called for clarification of the city’s campaign finance rules, so no one gains an unfair advantage. 

But with another election coming up, officials have yet to make any changes to the city municipal code, despite promising last summer to do so.  

In July 2021, the City Council voted unanimously to create a campaign subcommittee on the advice of City Attorney Glen Googins. Googins said the issue had been nagging at him for some time, but other priorities kept getting in the way.  

“There’s really no convenient time to take up this update,” he said. “We’re either going into an election cycle or we’re coming out of one.”  

To get things rolling, he suggested Mayor Mary Salas and Councilman Steve Padilla serve on the subcommittee. The confusion over the rules has led to complaints that some candidates have gamed the system to win office.  

At the time, Googins said he hoped to convene the subcommittee within 30 days, then return to the full City Council by the end of 2021 with recommendations. More than 13 months later, elected officials have yet to consider any proposals.  

Googins didn’t return a request for comment, but Anne Steinberger, the city’s marketing and communications manager, said the city attorney is continuing his efforts. “There is no update at this time, but plans are to bring this item to City Council before the end of his term,” she wrote in an email.  

The problem, as I reported last year, is with campaign debt, or more specifically, unpaid bills. Sometimes candidates trying to get their names in front of Chula Vista voters spend more than they raise in donations, and the difference is listed on disclosure reports as an accrued expense — essentially a credit. Then once they secure a position of influence, they go back out and raise more money or pay the difference out of their own pocket.  

Ending a campaign with unpaid bills isn’t usually a problem in local elections, because most cities offer politicians a grace period. San Diego, for example, gives candidates 180 days to pay back their vendors or become personally responsible for the money.  

The Chula Vista municipal code, on the other hand, treats unpaid bills as an “extension of credit” but it doesn’t offer a timeline for when those bills are due. A strict reading of the municipal code suggests that the costs of campaign goods and services become donations, subject to a $360 per person cap, if they’re not paid upfront.  

Political operatives said there are legitimate reasons  a bill might go unpaid in the short term but acknowledged there’s a public interest in stopping bad actors and clearing up the confusion. Dan Rottenstreich, a consultant, offered a hypothetical situation: “A lobbyist sends $50,000 worth of mail on behalf of a candidate and says, ‘No, don’t worry, I’ll send an invoice, you can pay me whenever.’ That is something you would want to stop.”  

This otherwise obscure provision reared its head again in the 2020 election after Andrea Cardenas ousted Mike Diaz, the incumbent, for City Council. Diaz ended the campaign with a slight surplus. Cardenas, a political consultant, finished with bills totaling $36,691, mostly owed to a communications firm specializing in mailers.  

Cardenas’s campaign debt was worth more than Diaz had raised over the course of the entire election. Though Diaz was feuding with the local GOP at the time and ultimately re-registered as an independent, he cited his opponent’s debt-spending as a reason he lost.  

Months after winning office, Cardenas loaned her campaign $33,500 and accepted a pair of donations from another political consultant, John Wainio. Her latest campaign finance report, filed in July, still shows $700 in accrued expenses. Cardenas didn’t return a request for comment.  

She’s not the first Chula Vista politician to spend considerably more than she took in. Councilman John McCann, who’s now running for mayor, finished the 2014 election owing $40,662 for literature and mailers. Both Salas and Padilla have also finished campaigns owing thousands of dollars to lawyers or consultants. Googins, too, finished his 2010 campaign with more than $20,000 in debt but paid it off before taking office.  

Salas and Padilla are termed out later this year, which was part of Googins’ justification for proposing they join the campaign subcommittee.  

“You’ve both gone through a lot of elections and have a lot of different experience with this,” he said. 

“More than we’d like to admit,” Salas joked.  

Googins also said he wanted the subcommittee to make suggestions on how to fine-tune the procedures for enforcement. The current system in place was the one proposed more than a decade ago to address complaints as they arise.  

For starters, the city’s Board of Ethics appoints a panel of outside attorneys. If they conclude that the complaint meets a “knowing and willful” standard, it goes to the district attorney’s office and could be punishable as a misdemeanor. But if the complaint meets a “negligent” standard, one of the attorneys on the panel reconsiders it as a possible civil and administrative matter. The point is to isolate city staff so the people reviewing the complaint aren’t biased.  

Peter J. Watry, Jr., a Chula Vista resident, filed two such complaints last year. One was against Cardenas for her unpaid bills. The other followed on the heels of a La Prensa article and was against McCann for using a donor-supported legal defense fund to pay legal bills after he lost a defamation case that he initiated. As the Star News reported, the complaint alleged that McCann solicited contributions from companies and individuals who had business before the City Council.  

McCann didn’t return a request for comment but told the newspaper last summer that he acted within the bounds of the law and declined to discuss specifics of the lawsuit.  

An outside attorney investigating the complaint against McCann for Chula Vista kicked it to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, arguing that the question of legal defense funds was a state matter, not a local one. That investigation is still open.  

As for Cardenas, another outside attorney concluded there was probable cause that her campaign debt spending violated the municipal code on a negligent standard, but it’s not immediately clear what happened after that. I asked Cardenas and city officials for an update and didn’t hear back.  

Last week, I also asked Padilla and Salas, the two members of the city’s campaign subcommittee, for an update on its progress. Salas didn’t respond. An aide for Padilla said he was unavailable for comment because of a personal matter. 

The only elected official who agreed to comment on this issue was also the only elected official who hasn’t reported any unpaid bills.  

In a statement, Jill Galvez, who joined the City Council in 2018, said: “I’m looking forward to hearing the recommended language clarification from the subcommittee and voting on it soon so that there is an even playing field between candidates. I think the language is pretty clear as it stands, but there is no question that enforcement of the Chula Vista municipal code provisions on candidate fundraising and debt has been lacking.” 

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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