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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.” ■