From San Diego City Beat:
Exploring the link between city candidates and ballot measures
By David Rolland
At the Jan. 14 San Diego City Council meeting, Councilmember Tony Young, perturbed about a petition drive to make several changes to the City Charter—a municipal version of a constitution—muttered something about a “running mate” for Mayor Jerry Sanders on the June 3 ballot.
A running mate? Will there be a vice mayor in 2009?
Nope. Young was referring to the petition being circulated by a well-funded group called San Diegans for City Hall Reform, made up largely of real-estate, tourism and other business interests. Among the changes the group wants voters to approve is a proposal to require the City Council to muster six votes out of eight in order to override a mayoral veto—an extraordinarily high three-quarters threshold that would significantly increase the mayor’s power. On Jan. 14, the council declined to place that proposal on the ballot, although it agreed with several other of the group’s ideas.
Because Sanders supports the veto proposal, Young and others envision at least the appearance of a coordinated effort between the campaigns to reelect the mayor and to strengthen the mayoral veto. Both Sanders and San Diegans for City Hall Reform (SDCHR) have ties to campaign consultant Tom Shepard. Shepard is running Sanders’ reelection campaign, and SDCHR employed Shepard when the group successfully got Measures B and C passed in 2006. Those initiatives gave Sanders increased authority to outsource city jobs. Moreover, several members of the SDCHR steering committee were appointed by Sanders to a Charter Reform Committee that recommended a six-vote veto override.
Time will tell how SDCHR will finesse the campaign. For now, it’s still unclear whether the group can even qualify for the ballot. The city clerk must submit all ballot measures to the county registrar by March 7. Denise Jenkins, an elections analyst for the City Clerk’s office, said the group would need to submit 80,929 signatures by roughly Feb. 1 to ensure enough time for City Council approval and signature validation.
There are rules governing how candidate campaigns and ballot-measure committees interact. For example, SDCHR might be able to get away with campaign mailers that say something like “Help Mayor Jerry Sanders reform City Hall—vote yes on Measure X.”
“It depends very much on precisely what it said, and the standard in the law is whether the campaign advertisement, taken in whole and in context, unambiguously urges you to vote for Jerry for reelection,” said Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission.
“If you said, ‘Help Jerry Sanders reform City Hall,’ ultimately, the ethics commissioners I work for would be the ones to make a decision about whether that urged a result in a city candidate election,” Fulhorst said. “Certainly, if an advertisement said, ‘Give Jerry four more years to reform City Hall, you’d be getting a little warmer.”
Janette Littler, a SDCHR consultant and spokesperson, said SDCHR has no plans to invoke Sanders’ name in its campaign. “That’s something that we have not discussed and have no intent at this time to do,” she said. But if polling shows a high approval rating for Sanders, the temptation to ride his coattails might be too much to resist.
The reason for the rule against unambiguously urging a vote for a candidate is to prohibit large campaign contributions for the candidate being laundered through a ballot-measure committee. Under city election law, candidates for mayor may receive contributions of up to $320 from individuals (up from $300 during the last election). There are no contribution limits for ballot-measure committees.
State and city law do allow candidates for office to control ballot-measure campaigns, as long as the relationship is officially declared on publicly accessible campaign disclosure documents.
Fulhorst noted that the state Fair Political Practices Commission recently attempted to impose contribution limits for ballot-measure committees controlled by candidates, but the new rule couldn’t withstand a legal challenge. So, if Sanders were to take the reins of SDCHR’s campaign, he could, in a way, benefit from unlimited contributions.
All that might turn out to be moot, however. “You’re talking about hypotheticals that don’t apply here. That’s not our intent,” Littler said. “While the mayor’s office is aware of our efforts, we have not consulted with them in formulating our initiative. We are an independent group.”
Sanders campaign spokesperson Kevin Klein said Sanders will have no part to play in SDCHR’s charter-reform effort.
For his part, businessman Steve Francis, who’s running against Sanders, will be monitoring links between the campaigns, including one named Tom Shepard. “If there’s a suggestion that somehow there’s no linkage, and then some of the same consultants are showing up on that [SDCHR] committee that are also doing work for an elected official, there’s a linkage,” said Francis campaign manager Charles Gallagher.