Jeff Smith 12:18 p.m., May 20
Trash Magnate Paying for Mayors' Newspaper Columns
Who says the power and influence of newspapers is dying?
Apparently not five North County mayors and San Diego's own Jerry Sanders.
The North County mayors have inquired of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission whether or not they are receiving a gift or campaign contribution "when a private citizen underwrites the costs for them to each write a letter to their constituents in a community newspaper."
To answer that question, Escondido city attorney Jeffrey Epp wrote the FPPC on behalf of his city, along with San Marcos, Carlsbad, Oceanside, and Vista , saying that each of their mayors, "would like to participate in a mayoral forum in a local newspaper."
"The newspaper, The Paper, serves the North San Diego county area and was approached by a local businessman who wanted to underwrite the costs of a full-page forum for local mayors," says an October 19 letter by commission general counsel Zackery P. Morazzini:
"The local businessman pays The Paper $50 per participating mayor (the price varies depending on the amount of participation on any given week).
"This amount is a reduction in The Paper's usual advertising rates.
"The mayors will typically address their communities on local issues and will not discuss elections or campaigns."
Without identifying the donor, Morazzini concluded that free print for the politicians was neither a personal gift nor a campaign contribution to them.
"Based on your facts, the letters will not be for a political purpose and will not contain express advocacy, refer to elective office, or solicit contributions," he wrote.
"The payments from the local businessman to The Paper to underwrite the cost of publishing the letters would therefore not be a contribution to any of the mayors."
On the gift question, Morazzini held that, "The articles in The Paper that you have described confer no personal benefit on any of the mayors.
"Our advice would be different if the mayors were using the space to promote their own businesses or other personal interests.
"Here, however, the payments to The Paper for space to publish the mayors’ letters do not confer a personal benefit and do not create a gift under the Act."
For much the same reason, the commission's attorney said that the newspaper's discounted rate represented neither a gift nor contribution to the mayors.
The Paper, published and edited by Lyle Davis, is based in San Marcos. According to the rate card posted on its website, the maximum price of a full-page advertisement is $1100.
Reached by phone at his office this afternoon, Escondido mayor Sam Abed confirmed the financial arrangements for the newspaper's feature, entitled "A Letter from the Mayor," which he said has been published once a week for "a few months."
The sponsor, said Abed, is Arie de Jong, a dairy, solid waste, and recycling magnate who has long been politically active in North County and was profiled by The Paper in May 2009.
Three years ago, according to a report by Logan Jenkins in the Union-Tribune, de Jong hosted a fundraiser at Melrose Ranch, de Jong's sprawling and well-appointed estate near Lake Wohlford, for county supervisor Bill Horn.
"It's just to promote democracy and transparency," Abed said about the newspaper's arrangement with de Jong.
Regarding his latest contribution to the column, he said, "I have a town hall coming up, and I promoted that."
The mayors' messages are presented in individual boxes, with color photographs of each mayor.
A note at the top of the page says the feature is sponsored by de Jong "in the belief that it is important for elected leaders to communicate with their constituents and that constituents have a means of hearing from their elected leaders."
Not all of the North County mayors have written for The Paper, Abed added, but San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders has.
His latest column touted a plan to collect money for downtown's homeless population.
A note at the bottom of the mayors' feature says, "Mayors Judy Ritter of Vista and Matt Hall of Carlsbad declined to participate in the Letter from the Mayor program."