Signal Hill Mayor Noll calls for disclosure of political-interest groups behind ‘smear tactics’

Sean Belk
Staff Writer

At the end of a brief Signal Hill City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 21, under “new business,” Mayor Michael Noll proposed having the city attorney draft an ordinance that would require political-interest groups that attempt to influence city elections disclose their financial supporters and campaign contributions to the City.
The rest of the Council acquiesced to Noll’s request but refrained from discussion. City Attorney David Aleshire said he would have staff provide a list of potential provisions for the ordinance when brought back to the Council at a future meeting.
The ordinance may include putting certain restrictions on political action committees (PACs) or other forms of political-interest groups that are currently not covered under Signal Hill’s municipal election code.
Various political attack-ad mailers were sent out to Signal Hill voters leading up to the March 2011 and March 2013 elections as part of campaigns that Noll called “smear tactics” targeting Council incumbents running for re-election, as well as other longtime city officials.
“We need to have fair and honest elections, where the voters can have the appropriate information to decide on the candidates and the issues,” Noll declared as Councilmember Tina Hansen held up copies of the fliers in question. “I think that this ordinance should be given a high priority since we have a special election in June of 2014, where outside groups may attempt to distort the issue again.”
City code currently limits individual candidate campaign expenditures to about $500 per election cycle and requires that candidates file financial documents with the City. PACs, however, aren’t covered under city code and currently file campaign contributions with the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters.
In the weeks prior to this year’s March 5 city election, two separate fliers, which some people have called “hit pieces,” criticized the records of Noll, Vice Mayor Ed Wilson and former councilmember Ellen Ward.
The fliers included snippets of various newspaper articles, attached to statements claiming that sitting councilmembers are “wasting our hard-earned tax dollars,” and compared Signal Hill to the City of Bell, which has been embroiled in scandal over charges of corruption and misappropriation of public funds, for which its city officials have recently been convicted.
A group that calls itself Coalition for Clean Affordable Water was named as the party responsible for the fliers mailed out during the last election cycle. City officials are currently investigating what individuals or entities helped finance the group.
“These two fliers included misleading and inflammatory statements including that crime is up [and] our streets are unsafe to walk at night,” Noll said. “The flier accused the City Council of destroying property values and the moral fabric of our community.”
Signal Hill City Manager Ken Farfsing told the Signal Tribune in a phone interview that only in the last two elections have interest groups tried to sway voters by sending out such mass mailers, some of which were printed on expensive, colored, hard-stock material.
“It’s been a rather recent phenomenon,” he said. “It takes significant resources to do these types of fliers… That’s not an inexpensive proposition to do.”
Farfsing said Aleshire is looking into the financial records of the groups through the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission at the request of the Council. However, he could not confirm any further information before the Signal Tribune’s deadline.
“It takes a while for the records to get up to the State,” Farfsing said. “We’ll continue to do research and track it down.”
The goal of drafting an ordinance is to proactively “shine a spotlight” on PACs, said Noll, who added that during the last two elections, “significant money from outside our community poured into Signal Hill” in an attempt to influence voters.
“The Constitution provides every citizen with the right to freedom of speech, so I have no doubt that the interest groups will attempt to spread lies about Signal Hill in the future,” he said. “I also believe that our voters deserve the right to know the individuals that are supporting the smear tactics.”
In 2011, the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters (LALCV) PAC sent out mailers that criticized incumbent Councilmember Larry Forester’s environmental record, showing a cartoon-figure of the councilmember with a sign that read, “I Protect Polluters.”
LALCV has its own 25-member board of directors made up of “activists, advocates and professionals committed to protecting the environment and improving the quality of life for those who live and work in Los Angeles County,” according to the group’s website. The PAC endorses political candidates in L.A. County and its 88 cities.
Signal Hill will be holding a special election on June 5, 2014 in which voters will decide the fate of the controversial initiative “Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote.” The statewide direct primary election will also be held in June next year.
Earlier this year, proponents of the initiative successfully gathered enough signatures (871) to get the initiative on the ballot for a special election. The initiative, which would change the city charter if approved by voters, has several components, including requiring that voters approve all taxes, assessments and fees with a two-thirds majority.

Other City Council highlights:
Wastewater service charges
Prior to the Council meeting, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District No. 29 Board of Directors, which is governed by the Council, voted unanimously (5-0) to re-adopt its wastewater service-charge report for Fiscal Year 2013-2014.
A public hearing on the item was required for continued collection of the service charge on the tax roll of residential, commercial and small industrial dischargers. However, L.A. County Sanitation District staff recommended no increase in the service-charge rate for the upcoming fiscal year. In District No. 29, the current wastewater service charge rate per single-family household is $28.31 per month ($339.75 per year).
“You would have been up for a [Proposition] 218 process this year, but, when we looked at the numbers, you’re in good shape going forward,” said Grace Chan, chief engineer and general manager for the County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. She confirmed that staff would look at a possible three-year rate increase next year. The last time the rate was increased was in Fiscal Year 2012-2013, when it was raised 1.8 percent.

Recognitions and proclamations
During the Council meeting, Mayor Noll presented proclamations to the Signal Hill Community Development Department in recognition of National Building and Safety Month and to the Signal Hill Public Works Department in recognition of Public Works Week, which was from May 19 to 25.
Noll and Signal Hill Police Chief Michael Langston recognized Gary Weinberger, Romeo Cantos and Judy Jacobus for their service as Signal Hill police volunteers. Cantos was not present.
In addition, Noll presented a certificate of recognition to Signal Hill resident Hazel Wallace, who received the 33rd Senate District Outstanding Woman of Distinction Award. As director of the Long Beach Health and Human Services Department’s laboratory, Wallace was instrumental in implementing the first HIV-screening program in Long Beach. She has served on the boards of directors for AIDS Walk Long Beach and the health department, and she currently serves on the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District board.

Conduct in public places
In a second-reading vote, the Council voted 5-0 to adopt an ordinance that amends the city charter regarding regulations for conduct in parks and other public places. The ordinance was introduced in a public hearing during the May 7 Council meeting.
Signal Hill’s 10 city parks have become increasingly popular throughout the years due to their “unique designs, cleanliness and safe feeling,” according to a city staff report. However, the influx of organized fitness groups, particularly at Discovery Well Park and Hilltop Park, and other incidents have recently created challenges for staff to be able to manage the parks and facilities, according to the staff report.
New language adopted in the ordinance requires permits for various uses, including: personal barbecues that use bottled gas only; an organized fitness activity, such as a boot camp; any private party with a group of more than 25 people; and temporary personal canopies or tents.
Any party may appeal a decision on a permit through the Signal Hill Parks and Recreation Commission. A violation of the ordinance may be charged as either an infraction or a misdemeanor, depending on the violation.

The next Signal Hill Council meeting will take place Tuesday, June 4 at 7pm in the City’s Council Chamber.

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