The quasi-governmental league says it’s not required to release records.
  • The quasi-governmental league says it’s not required to release records.
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Every year, the City of San Diego pays dues of $100,476 to the Sacramento-based League of California Cities, a large and powerful advocacy group representing most of the state’s 482 cities.

“We believe in conducting the business of government with transparency [and] openness,” avows the league in its mission statement.

Mel Shapiro

Mel Shapiro

So Mel Shapiro, San Diego activist, asked the league for information under the California Public Records Act. He was told that the league is “a private nonprofit corporation” not subject to the act. Then Shapiro asked if the league was subject to the Brown Act, which guarantees the public’s right to participate in legislative meetings. He was told that the league is not a legislative body as defined by the Brown Act.

In frustration, Shapiro asked for a copy of the league’s Form 990, an annual document that tax-exempt organizations file with the Internal Revenue Service. Form 990s often contain valuable information on nonprofits. Shapiro was told that the league doesn’t have to file 990s because it provides “essential government services.”

Hmm. The league provides “essential government services” but is a “private nonprofit corporation” that is immune from open-government requirements.

San Diegans from across the political spectrum are puzzled: “You can’t have it both ways,” says former councilmember Donna Frye.

Donna Frye

Donna Frye

“If you are claiming to provide essential government services, you should be subject to the Brown Act and the Public Records Act,” says Richard Rider, chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters.

Richard Rider

Richard Rider

“If the organization provides an essential government service and is publicly funded, even if it is not legally required, I think it would be ethically required to release its records, file appropriate forms, and be transparent,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego. “It’s hard to be an advocate for government transparency when you are not yourself transparent.”

Steve Erie

Steve Erie

Eva Spiegel, communications director of the league, says that the organization follows the spirit of the Brown Act by holding board and committee meetings that are open to the public. After the legislature moved to loosen Brown Act requirements, the league on July 20 congratulated those cities that stayed faithful to the old rules. And her department “does endeavor to provide responses to requests for information as best we can,” she says.

But because the league throws so much weight around, challenges inevitably arise. For example, the league is a corporate welfare enthusiast — that is, it has spent bushels of money supporting redevelopment. With the California Redevelopment Association, the league sponsored 2010’s Proposition 22, which forbade the state from snatching redevelopment agency funds.

As it turned out, the move backfired. With the redevelopment agencies’ funds purportedly unavailable, Governor Jerry Brown shut the agencies down. The legislature agreed with the move. But to mollify pro-redevelopment forces in the legislature, Brown signed a second bill permitting the agencies to stay around if they anted up funds that the league called “ransom.”

The league and redevelopment association sued, challenging both laws. The California Supreme Court late last year ruled that the law abolishing the agencies was proper and the “ransom” law violated Proposition 22. More than 400 redevelopment agencies are being eliminated. So the league and its ally were hoisted with their own petard.

Now, however, legislators are trying to bring back redevelopment under different names, such as “infrastructure financing districts” and “sustainable communities investment authorities.” The league is boasting in news releases and other materials that it is assisting these efforts to bring back redevelopment in disguise.

“It disturbs me that my tax dollars are going to an endeavor that works against my interest,” says Dr. Brian Peterson, redevelopment foe who is president of the Grantville Action Group.

Spiegel claims that public funds do not go into ballot-advocacy measures like Proposition 22. “State law makes it clear that public funds may only be used for legislative advocacy and prohibits [their] use in ballot-measure advocacy,” she says. The league separates its public and nonpublic funds and only uses nonpublic funds — raised from “private sources” — on ballot measures. Donations from companies like Ghilotti Construction and Best Way Disposal and individuals, including retired city managers, are plunked into a political action committee called CitiPAC and spent on ballot-measure advocacy.

But San Diegans such as Shapiro and Peterson are skeptical of the supposed accounting segregation. For example, Shapiro asks if league employees, who are paid with tax dollars, play a significant role in CitiPAC. Spiegel insists no public money goes into CitiPAC, but in the league’s magazine she says, “City officials can support CitiPAC in a variety of ways,” such as serving on a CitiPAC planning committee. That certainly raises questions.

In 2007, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association charged that the league was using “anonymous campaign accounts” to oppose Jarvis-sponsored ballot measures demanding reforms in eminent domain use. The league does not disclose the source of financing or contributors of the so-called nonpublic funds, charged the association.

The following year, the Jarvis association sponsored Proposition 98, which would have come down hard on use of eminent domain. The league and other organizations proposed and spent a bundle on Proposition 99, which was much softer, permitting cities to use eminent domain more broadly. Proposition 99 won. The Jarvis group filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission, which ultimately found no violation of the Political Reform Act. The Jarvis group still believes the league “is a byzantine and secretive organization,” says official Kris Vosburgh.

Despite its calls for open government, the League of California Cities opposes a bill that would require state and local agencies to make records available to public inspection. In its educational materials, financed with public funds, the league supports defined benefit pension plans for career public employees — a view that is not applauded by taxpayers who prefer defined contribution plans, like a 401(k), for public employees.

“A group set up with the idea that they are neutral can be captured by partisans,” observes former councilmember Bruce Henderson. “A good reputation can become sullied.” ■

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Comments

MURPHYJUNK July 25, 2012 @ 8:17 a.m.

Sounds like we ( taxpayers) are funding another form of corruption.

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Don Bauder July 25, 2012 @ 8:25 a.m.

Some taxpayers are certainly funding issues that they don't believe in. Best, Don Bauder

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MiriamRaftery July 25, 2012 @ 9:17 p.m.

Good story, Don. I definitely agree that the League should opt for disclosure and stop the doublespeak. If it's claiming to do essential government business, then it should be subject to the Brown Act. Perhaps the Legislature needs to pass some language to clarify that-or someone needs to test this in the courts.

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Don Bauder July 25, 2012 @ 10:14 p.m.

Miriam, somebody in the San Diego city council could challenge the $100,000 sent to the group every year -- say, no money without disclosure. Or somebody in San Diego could do so in court. Best, Don Bauder

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Linda_J_Wilson July 26, 2012 @ 7:12 p.m.

I was curious what kind of a 501 not for profit they were, so I went looking. Imagine my surprise when I found out they are registered as a charity.

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Don Bauder July 26, 2012 @ 7:41 p.m.

Interesting: a charity that provides essential government services. Best, Don Bauder

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SurfPuppy619 July 27, 2012 @ 1:46 a.m.

Simple solution, file suit in court and MAKE hem disclose it. That is what we have courts for, to force people to follow the law.

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Don Bauder July 27, 2012 @ 7:22 a.m.

Who has the money to finance the suit? The league has lots of bucks to fight one. Best, Don Bauder

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Visduh July 27, 2012 @ 11:13 a.m.

There are probably many attorneys around who would be willing to tackle that one for free. Prevailing in court would be a big feather in some lawyer's cap. I cannot resist repeating my comment than whenever you see some organization or person proclaiming "transparency" the exact opposite is what is really going on. This is one of many classic examples of that. When does this stuff stop? Ans: never.

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Don Bauder July 27, 2012 @ 3:25 p.m.

Yes, I agree that some institution that the IRS says is providing essential government services should be transparent....anybody should be able to access its records. Best, Don Bauder

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SurfPuppy619 July 28, 2012 @ 7:42 a.m.

Visduh, your comment is so true- Obama said he was going to have the most "transparent" admin in presidential history, yet he is no different, hides the ball all the time.

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Don Bauder July 28, 2012 @ 10:38 a.m.

Agreed, SurfPup. Obama has been a disappointment in several respects: he should have gotten us out of Afghanistan, and has flopped on personal rights and transparency issues. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister July 27, 2012 @ 11:03 p.m.

Good work, Don! And everybody.

Individuals have a right to privacy; governments have a responsibility, not only to disclose, but to facilitate the dissemination of government activities to the citizens is is sworn to serve. What is the penalty for failing to exercise good faith with respect to the oath of office?

Is secrecy by government, except with the consent of the governed, constitutional?

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Don Bauder July 28, 2012 @ 10:40 a.m.

Once the IRS declared that the league was performing essential government services (that happened in the 1980s), the league should have begun following complete transparency. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 10, 2012 @ 10:16 p.m.

There is no justification for secrecy at any level of "government."

The problem is That Old Black Magic called manipulation.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 8:14 a.m.

Government is good at touting transparency while hiding the pea. Ditto for the private sector. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 11, 2012 @ 8:51 a.m.

Well, yes, a fool and his money are soon parted, but intelligence is measured by how long we persist in pursuing the pea. Social mores once governed an individual's sense of honor, now the culture has tipped that old-fashioned principle on its head, and at the last "function" of the local power-brokers I attended, a funeral for the young son of one of them, I heard almost nothing but bragging about how cases had been "won" that struck me as grand screwings. Nothing about the poor kid who had died. All of this is about to bite us all in the ass (to put it mildly), but you can be sure that the guilty will be the last to suffer and suffer the least--until the bell tolls for the entire, as George Bernard Shaw (or was it Wilde?) put it, "Goddamed human race."

When predator kills off most of its prey, the predator suffers the consequences of failing to live frugally, and is thus forced into poverty, misery, and even extinction, himself.

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Don Bauder Aug. 11, 2012 @ 11:28 a.m.

Many times I have heard a lawyer laud another lawyer for getting a very guilty person off with a light sentence, or off completely. Defying justice is a badge of honor and a road to riches in the legal profession. It's one reason why the rich so often get off the hook; they can afford top lawyers. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 11, 2012 @ 11:31 p.m.

O, Hamlet, wherefore art thou, when we needest thou the most? Or am I mixed up?

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Don Bauder Aug. 12, 2012 @ 9:14 a.m.

Get thee to a nunnery! (I understand that the word "nunnery" in this instance referred to a brothel. I got that from a Shakespeare expert.) Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 12, 2012 @ 10:11 p.m.

Well, I'll be GOL-danged! THANK you for straightening me out. However, a quick search turns up some uncertainty and different interpretations. For example, at http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19981016 This brief essay also sounds credible:

The meaning of the word nunnery in Hamlet is one of those things that everyone seems to remember thinking about in a high-school class, but no one can quite recall the details of. Let's get the obvious out of the way first: the word nunnery means 'a convent', and has since the thirteenth century.

The next question is, "Has the word nunnery ever referred to a brothel?" The answer is yes.

The hard part is the next question: "In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act III Scene i, when Hamlet tells Ophelia 'Get thee to a nunnery', is he talking about a convent, or a brothel?"

The evidence for nunnery in the sense 'brothel' during this period is not large. The existing citations--from Nashe, Fletcher, and others--generally show that the word was used in a highly contextual manner, when the whole frame assumed a series of puns and double entendres. The word is not used in neutral situations where one "knows" the meaning, which is not otherwise mentioned. So the assertion that the meaning 'brothel' would have been "obvious" or "crystal clear" to an audience at the time is at best dubious.

In Hamlet, the "nunnery" exchange happens just after the "To be or not to be" speech. In the space of thirty lines, Hamlet tells Ophelia five times to go to a nunnery, in slightly different forms. While it is a matter of interpretation, an honest reading strongly suggests that Hamlet is using the literal sense here. He speaks against having children ("Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners" [some critics feel that this should be punctuated as "Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners," with the "Why" an interjection, not an interrogative]), tells her to distrust men ("We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us"), tells her not to marry and disparages the institution of marriage ("I say we will have no moe [more] marriage").

It makes perfect sense, under the circumstances, for Hamlet to be telling Ophelia to go to a convent and remove herself from the fleshly world. To assume that Hamlet is really referring to a brothel would go completely against the character of everything he is saying.

It is possible that the 'brothel' sense could be meant to give an additional twist of underlying irony. But I think that 'convent' is the meaning intended in this passage. This belief is the generally accepted one among Shakespeare scholars.

Thanks, Don, for providing me this entree into this errand.

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Don Bauder Aug. 13, 2012 @ 10:09 a.m.

If Shakespeare had just said "convent" and not "nunnery" he would have saved scholars all that agony. I can see how it can be read both ways. If Hamleet denounces men and doesn't want Ophelia to be a breeder of sinners, or to marry, she could accomplish that in a brothel, too. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 13, 2012 @ 5:03 p.m.

To breed, or not to breed--is that the question?

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Don Bauder Aug. 13, 2012 @ 5:55 p.m.

Get thee to a punnery! Best, Don Bauder

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Twister Aug. 14, 2012 @ 8:57 a.m.

I am undone! Thou hath pierced my heart with a mere bare bodkin!

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