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Tuesday, 28 June 2016 23:14

City Council Decides on Campaign Finance Reform, Voluntary Contribution Limits

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City Council took a definitive stance at Tuesday’s City Council meeting voting down all other campaign finance regulation ordinances and passing a voluntary campaign contribution limit. 06-28-16 City Council took a definitive stance at Tuesday’s City Council meeting voting down all other campaign finance regulation ordinances and passing a voluntary campaign contribution limit. 06-28-16 Eric Escalante/TurlockCityNews.com
There is no more ambiguity in where the Turlock City Council stands in their opinions regarding campaign finance. After voting down all the other proposed measures, a majority of the City Council, with Councilmember Bublak teleconferencing into the meeting, voted in approval for Proposal 4, which implements voluntary campaign contribution limits.

The ordinance adopted by the City Council regarding voluntary contribution limits has a looser definition of a donor than the ordinance proposed by Councilmember Steven Nascimento. Whereas Councilmember Nascimento sought to define a donor so that an individual who owns multiple business entities couldn’t usurp the contribution limit by donating from his different business entities, Mayor Soiseth’s proposal kept the definition as defined by the State of California.

According to Turlock City Attorney Phaedra Norton, this definition has a person defined as an individual, proprietorship, firm, partnership, joint venture, syndicate, business trust, company, corporation, LLC, association, committee, and any other organizations or group of persons acting in concert.

In the case of Mayor Soiseth and Councilmember Bill DeHart, this would allow for the same method of funding that Mayor Soiseth received in 2014 from Associated Feed, Prospector LLC, and from an employee of Brownstone Equities, which are all owned by Matt Swanson and all donated the same $3,000 amount. However, adhering to the rules of voluntary contribution limits, this would mean that only $1,000 could be donated from Prospector LLC and Associated Feed as respective individual entities.

Additionally, every campaign contribution from $1 and up would have to be disclosed.

The candidate receiving these types of donations would still be in compliance with the voluntary contribution limit, however, Mayor Soiseth did state that it would be up to the individual to reject these types of contributions.

“If there are other businesses that contribute, that’s up to the individual to reject those other checks or not or publically display that this was a maximum contribution,” stated Mayor Soiseth.

“You’re going to have to own your actions on the campaign trail whether you’re donating or knocking on a door talking about your issues.”

In contrast, Councilmember Nascimento’s ordinance would have limited the contributions from entities owned by the same individual. It also would have defined a husband and a wife as two separate individuals capable of donating $1,000 each for one individual running for City Council.

Proposal number 3, which was the product of an effort by former Councilmembers Mary Jackson, Ron Hillberg, and former Mayor Brad Bates in conjunction with Councilmember Nascimento, stands apart from Proposal 1 (Nascimento’s 2014 ordinance) and Proposal 2, which was the original effort from Jackson, Bates, and Hillberg. Proposal 3 differs in that it is not a disqualification ordinance.

Proposal’s 1 and 2 are disqualification ordinances that would see the Councilmembers having to recuse themselves from a vote that involves or would affect a large campaign contributor.

If implemented historically, proposal’s 1 and 2 could have disqualified Councilmember Nascimento from voting in the farmers’ market decision.

During Councilmember Nascimento’s election, he received a donation of $2,000 from John Ferrari, husband of Jeani Ferrari one of the founding members of Turlock Certified Farmers’ Market.

The Modesto Bee noted Swanson donations and related connected donations, however, the mainstream newspaper refused to mention one of the single largest personal donations, tagged to Councilmember Nascimento.

When votes occurred that would push forward the Request for Proposal process forward, Councilmember Nascimento was the sole dissenting vote for much of the process.

As read aloud by Mayor Soiseth at the March 15 special meeting for the farmers’ market, Brad Bates had written to Mayor Soiseth in an email that read, “You have not been receptive to my advice about the compelling reasons that recusal would be appropriate, even though not legally required.”

If Mayor Soiseth recused himself as Bates advised, the ultimate vote for the farmers’ market could have potentially been a tie vote of 2 to 2, and Golden State Farmers’ Market Association would not have been awarded the market.

Mayor Soiseth continued to read aloud Bate’s email, “Of course, recusal was a strategy to support the outcome I think is correct for Jeani and TCFM.”

When Councilmember Nascimento, who was for a long time the only dissenting vote that favored TCFM  and received a $2,000 donation from the husband of a founding member of TCFM, became involved with Jackson, Bates, and Hillberg in developing Proposal 3, the disqualification component of Proposal 2 was dropped.

Tensions grew much higher during the meeting. As Mayor Soiseth began addressing his concerns regarding the “recall” section of Proposal 3, Hillberg attempted to correct Mayor Soiseth as the Mayor was speaking only to have the Mayor declare to him that the time for public comment was finished.

Councilman Nascimento attempted to correct the Mayor by saying, “That’s not the proposal we’re asking to be considered this evening.”

Councilmember Nascimento was corrected by Hillberg who stated that it was the correct proposal that he, Bates, and Jackson worked on in conjunction with Councilmember Nascimento. He addressed that Mayor Soiseth was reading from the “recall” section of the proposal, and attempted to resolve Soiseth’s concern in that section.

A person being recalled can have their own committee. There’s no prohibition, and there’s no spending limits…,” stated Hillberg.

However, Mayor Soiseth noted that there were still inconsistencies in amounts that can be raised with a recall committee and a person. The Mayor continued his statements, and reminded Hillberg that the time for public comment was closed.

“Public comment is closed, but I am reading off the correct version. My statements do stand; they are correct,” stated a decisive Mayor Soiseth.

While Mayor Soiseth didn’t see Proposal 3 as the right way to go, Councilmember Nascimento likewise found himself firmly against Proposal 4, Mayor Soiseth and Councilmember DeHart’s proposal.

“Now, having a chance to reflect on it, I think it’s worse than doing nothing, because it gives the false impression that we’re actually doing something,” stated Councilmember Nascimento.

“It sends a message to the community that we’re actually limiting campaign contributions. We’re not. For that reason, I can’t support it….”

Proposal 4, which had voluntary campaign contribution limits, was criticized by Mary Jackson for not having any “teeth.”

“You’re saying this has teeth. No, this has dentures. You can take the teeth out anytime you want.”

With proposal 4, the candidates must volunteer to abide by the contribution limits and practices or reject them. Mayor Soiseth and Councilmember DeHart argued that the ordinance did have “teeth” in regard to how it would affect the perception of elected officials to voters.

“Our character and our name is what matters to us as elected officials.”

“When we come up here and we pledge in front of the public, and we put it for public record, that we are going to adhere to these rules then that means a lot… it will be determined at the ballot box whether the voters believe that means a lot to them.”

According to Mayor Soiseth and Councilmember DeHart, Proposal 3 was the result of listening to the individuals who spoke at the campaign finance workshops. However, Jackson claimed that “I believe everyone who spoke there said they wanted a limitation. They don’t want it voluntary.”

Mike Warda, a Turlock resident and local attorney who attended the District 2 campaign finance workshop, addressed that roughly 9 people were in attendance at these meetings, with many of the same individuals attending each district workshop.

“That’s .4 percent of the registered voters in Turlock. Actually, it’s quite a bit less than that, but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to the attendees that came,” stated Warda.

These District workshops regarding campaign finance drew very few individuals and just as few speakers. At Turlock High School and Cunningham Elementary School, attendance struggled to even reach 10 individuals respectively.

Lengthier conversations regarding campaign finance were evident in District 3 at Dennis Earl Elementary School where total attendance, outside of the media presence, was at 9. Attendees Elmano Costa, Soraya Fregosi, Brad Bates, and Mary Jackson were the main conversationalists and participants in the meeting.

District 4’s workshop at Turlock Junior High also struggled to garner attendees. In fact, the faces in that audience were so familiar with City Attorney Phaedra Norton’s presentation that her presentation was shortened.  

For these meetings, former Mayor Brad Bates was in attendance for at least 3 of the 4 meetings, Mary Jackson was in attendance for at least 2, and TurlockCityNews.com and Milt Trieweiler were in attendance for all four.

While many of the individuals who spoke at these meetings did speak about contribution limits, the public conversation was dominantly held with Brad Bates, Elmano Costa, Soraya Fregosi, Milt Trieweiler, and Mary Jackson.

“There’s no giant public outcry here. I think it’s disingenuous to represent that all these meeting that people wanted limits, the people wanted campaign finance reform. Maybe you’ve all gotten thousands of calls, thousands of emails, and this issue is really burning everyone up, but I doubt it. This is not an issue for this city, and we’re wasting a lot of time on it,” stated Warda.

In the end, every proposal received a vote. Proposals 1, 2, and 3 failed.

Proposal 4 was approved 3-2 vote, and with Mayor Soiseth, Councilmember Amy Bublak, and Councilmember DeHart voting “yes” and Councilmembers Matthew Jacob and Nascimento voting “no.”

Councilmembers DeHart, Jacob, and Mayor Soiseth all signed the pledge to abide by the voluntary limits during the Council meeting and Councilmember Bublak noted that she would sign upon her return.

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