On June 22, the Chula Vista City Council suspended a campaign-enforcement ordinance that has troubled the City every election cycle since its inception. According to city attorney Bart Miesfield, the stated purpose for this campaign ordinance was “to avoid undue or improper influence over elected officials from excessive contributions.”
The campaign code began to be reformed in 2001, but the enforcement code was ultimately crafted in 2004 by ex-councilmember John Moot, ex-councilmember Patty Davis, and mayor Cheryl Cox (prior to her 2006 election). The enforcement code says, “the City shall investigate or prosecute alleged violations” using a special outside attorney, and the council shall appropriate annually “no less than $100,000” to fund the outside counsel.
In 2001, when Moot was first appointed to a committee created to review the City’s campaign-contribution ordinance, he told the Union-Tribune that he hoped “to create an ordinance that will allow campaign contribution violations to be quickly reported…. The punishment is not as important as letting the public know in time to have an impact on the election in question.”
However, the majority of the council now feels that the current enforcement ordinance potentially lends itself to abuse. Councilmember Pamela Bensoussan said that “a very valid ordinance has had an unintended consequence.” Bensoussan made the point that from the moment a charge is filed, it becomes an investigation and a news story, whether the charges are proved frivolous or not.
Councilmember Rudy Ramirez stated in a June 20 interview, “There are already institutions that are funded and designed to investigate and render an opinion on these same issues: the [state] Fair Political Practices Commission and certainly the district attorney’s office. It’s not that [the district attorney’s office] sh[ies] away from investigations — I mean, we’ve had people indicted recently, and the FPPC issues citations all the time when they find wrongdoing, so this other thing [the enforcement ordinance] is just another layer of bureaucracy, and a costly one.”
The most recent application of this ordinance was when a Chula Vista resident filed charges against councilmember Steve Castaneda shortly after he entered the mayoral race. Late into Castaneda’s campaign, an independent attorney found the allegations baseless. The attorney’s report stated that most of the allegations had already been investigated by the FPPC.
When I asked Ramirez if he felt the investigation had affected Castaneda’s campaign, he said “Well, I saw some of the literature that was put out and he was certainly attacked because of this investigation, so just the mere fact that there was an allegation…that’s enough to smear somebody, that’s not due process. This speaks to the very harsh political climate that we’re in. It’s very counterproductive.”