Publication Date: Friday, October 31, 2003|
Council campaigns buried in complaints
Council campaigns buried in complaints
(October 31, 2003) Fliers, mailers stir up formerly placid election
by Bill D'Agostino
After a relatively benign campaign, Palo Alto politics abruptly turned ugly this week.
City Council candidates have unleashed a torrent of last-minute complaints against their opponents, pointing to fliers and mailers that allegedly violate campaign laws and hit below the belt.
"We're swirling in charges and counter-charges," Councilwoman and candidate Judy Kleinberg said. "It's another reason for people to say that Palo Alto politics has really descended to a level we can't be very proud about."
Most of the accusations centered around a political flier mailed this week by the Palo Alto Firefighter's Union. Various candidates and groups alleged the black-and-white advertisement was illegal, unethical, inaccurate, poorly proofread and in bad taste.
One ethics complaint has already been filed against a candidate supported by the union's flier, and the union itself is likely to face charges it violated state laws for failing to report its spending on the mailer.
The controversial flier also culminates a year of trouble brewed by union president Tony Spitaleri, whose hard-hitting style has angered many city leaders.
Other fliers and accusations also raised candidates' tempers, although those controversies appeared to lack the weight of the charges against the union.
The union flier asked voters to re-elect Councilwoman Nancy Lytle, elect challenger LaDoris Cordell and vote against Mayor Dena Mossar. While accusing Mossar of harming public safety, the flier repeatedly misspelled her name, calling her "Mossa."
The flier prompted several legal accusations and ethical complaints, including charges that Spitaleri enflamed fears about safety.
"Preying on the public's fears is the lowest form of campaign speech," Mossar said.
In the Palo Alto City Council race, 11 candidates, including four incumbents, are running for four seats. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 4
The union's flier also advocates voting no on Measure C. If city voters approve Measure C, a controversial 61-unit condominium complex will be allowed at 800 High St., located near downtown.
The complaint with the most apparent legal weight emanated from the pro-Measure C campaign. The campaign's consultant, Ed McGovern, was preparing late this week to file a complaint against the union for violating campaign finance laws.
The mailer clearly failed to list the official number of the union's PAC committee and failed to list the union's address, both required by state law.
The union also violated the law by not filing an expense form for the mailing, McGovern said.
According to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, any expenditure exceeding $1,000 made within the last 16 days of a campaign must be reported within 24 hours of spending the money.
Since the flier advocates on behalf of three groups -- Lytle, Cordell and No on Measure C -- the union would be in violation if it spent more then $3,000 on the flier and didn't report it.
Spitaleri refused to say whether the union spent more than $3,000 on the mailer.
But at 20 cents a stamp plus printing costs, it's unlikely the last-minute mailer -- sent to 10,000 Palo Alto homes, according to the union -- spent less than $3,000, McGovern said.
A recent letter sent by the Yes on C group, signed by Councilman Jack Morton, cost slightly more than $3,500, but since it advocated three candidates and two ballot groups, each candidate and group only got a $700 donation, well underneath the $1,000 threshold, McGovern said.
The state laws governing campaign spending are designed to keep the process of who spends money on campaigns open and transparent to the public.
As of Wednesday, the union has not filed a spending report since June 30, according to Palo Alto City Clerk Donna Rogers, who noted that the union is filing with the County of Santa Clara not the City of Palo Alto
"They must feel they're a regional PAC" (Political Action Committee), Rogers said.
Any failure to abide by state law was merely an oversight, Spitaleri said. "If it's late, it's only because our treasurer, who is battling leukemia, is fighting for his life."
The Yes on Measure C campaign also believes the union broke state law by showing a photograph of uniformed firefighters on the front of the postcard, McGovern alleged.
California law is not crystal clear on this point, but it does prohibit any government employee "to participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform."
"It's not kosher," McGovern said.
According to the flier, the union is opposing the condo project because it's an "empty promise" for firefighters since they will not be able to afford any of its units.
According to a city report, firefighters make too much money to qualify for the 10 "below market rate" units included in the project, but the report did not mention whether they made too much or not enough for the market-rate housing.
With the flier, the union is also fighting Mayor Mossar's re-election on the council. The mailer cites her support for Measure C, but also criticizes her votes on the city's budget - which trimmed the fire department's budget.
In three bullet-points, the flier argued that Mossar's votes reduced the firefighters' staffing levels.
One statement notes that she "voted to cut two Fire Inspectors, who inspect schools nursing homes and other public places for fire hazards."
Although Mossar agreed that two of the three statements are literally true, she believes that points misrepresented her record. The cuts were largely the result of retirements, or cuts to overtime pay, and no service to the public was lost, she said.
"They state a fact and they draw a conclusion. The conclusions are misleading," she said.
Council members Kleinberg and Bern Beecham are also running for re-election and voted for the cuts, but they were not targeted in the mailer. The reason only Mossar was listed, Spitaleri said, was that she boasted supporting police and fire department staffing in her candidate statement.
In a twist, Mossar filed an ethical complaint Thursday morning against fellow candidate Cordell, for being supported by the flier.
Both Cordell and Mossar signed pledges early in the campaign with the non-profit Santa Clara County Campaign Ethics Foundation, agreeing to run clean campaigns. The pledge also requires them to "publicly repudiate" any group that supports them and resorts to unethical behavior.
Mossar's complaint could mean that a hearing with an eight-member commission will be held prior to the election to air the complaints. If the commission ultimately rules against Cordell, she faces possible sanctions -- including losing endorsements from various groups.
Prior to filing the complaint, Mossar hand-delivered a letter to Cordell on Tuesday night asking her to denounce the flier.
After receiving the letter, Cordell released a press release, asking the union to verify the claims made in the mailer and pointing out that Mossar did not deny her votes in her letter.
In her press release, Cordell also noted that she had nothing to do with the flier, which Spitaleri confirmed, and described Mossar's letter as "threatening."
"I have never made any allegations that LaDoris made the piece," Mossar said. The issue, she added, is whether Cordell will "fulfill her promise that she will stand tall and support ethical campaigning."
Cordell did not agree to be interviewed for this story, instead choosing to respond through one of her campaign leaders, Deborah Ju, who said that Cordell had nothing to add to her press release.
The chair of the ethics foundation, Susanne Wilson said she was still hoping Cordell and Mossar could meet and find common ground before bringing in the commission.
"It's in the mill; we don't know what's going to be happening yet," Wilson said Thursday at noon, as the Weekly was going to press.
In a brief telephone conversation where she refused to answer any questions, Cordell said she was planning to release another statement at 4 p.m. on Thursday, after the Weekly went to press, but refused to divulge its contents beforehand.
"I'm trying to bring some peace here and move on," Cordell said tersely.
Although the union's flier also supports incumbent Nancy Lytle, Mossar is not filing an ethical complaint against her, since Lytle did not sign the candidate's ethics form.
In a public e-mail earlier in the campaign, Lytle said she was considering signing the form, but felt it repeated another form she had already signed.
"I'll examine this new one and sign it as long as it represents a more stringent set of standards," Lytle wrote on Oct. 4. "I don't want to relax from what my committee has already committed to."
Since Lytle ultimately did not sign the form, there is no way for Mossar to seek redress against her. Calls to Lytle for comment were also not returned for this story.
With his usual bluster, Spitaleri argued that the flurry of claims about the flier were the result of campaigns losing momentum with voters.
"This is all desperation here, growing by the tons," he said.
Ironically, a mailer sent to residents by the Yes on C campaign also upset some residents, who felt that it was misleading, by asserting that it was coming directly from the City of Palo Alto.
The mailer's letterhead states "Mayor Dena Mossar, City of Palo Alto," and in the letter Mossar advocates voting Yes on C. But Mossar noted that the letter did not include the City of Palo Alto's logo or official letterhead
"I am the mayor," she noted. "That is my title."
The most spurious allegation of the week apparently came from council candidate John Fredrich, who filed an ethics complaint to the foundation. He argued that Kleinberg should have rejected the Palo Alto Weekly's endorsement of her candidacy, because the Weekly wrote that he does not have "the breadth of support or experience to be a credible candidate."
"It was not accepted," Wilson said of his claim. "It wasn't appropriate. He didn't like my response."
The Weekly endorsed Kleinberg, Mossar, Cordell and Beecham.
"I think this is fairly ludicrous to accuse a candidate of ethics violation because you weren't endorsed by a paper," Kleinberg said.
From early on, Wilson expected this city's elections would result in some complaints to her organization. No other local election had produced any this year, as of Thursday at noon.
"I kind of anticipated that Palo Alto would stir up something," Wilson said.
E-mail Bill D'Agostino at email@example.com