The Signal Hill City Council voted 4-1 during its June 4 meeting to have the city attorney draft an amendment to the City’s election code, requiring all political action committees (PACs) and independent expenditure committees (IECs) that attempt to sway public opinion during election cycles file campaign financial statements with the city clerk.
Mayor Michael Noll, who was targeted in fliers before the March 5 municipal election this year along with Vice Mayor Ed Wilson and former Councilmember Ellen Ward, brought forward the proposal at the end of the May 21 Council meeting under “new business,” calling the mass mailers “smear tactics.” The item was brought back for formal approval and to give city staff further direction.
Signal Hill’s elections and campaign-finance law that was last amended in 1993 only regulates candidates running for Council, city treasurer and city clerk offices. The ordinance requires that candidates report campaign expenditures with the city clerk and that financial statements be made available upon public request. The ordinance also limits campaign expenditures to about $500 per election cycle. PACs and IECs are currently not covered under the law.
Councilmember Lori Woods, who ran against Noll, Wilson and Ward in the last election, however, cast the lone dissenting vote, stating that the City may have trouble enforcing the proposed ordinance amendment.
“I don’t know how you possibly enforce something like this,” she said. “My thought is that, if any organization, any PAC, has enough money that they’re going to probably also have enough legal clout to bypass our whole system and ignore it, basically thumb their nose at it.”
Woods said she would rather have the City spend resources on “strengthening” the existing code and make campaign financial statements available on the City’s website. Woods also questioned how much would be spent on amending the ordinance, to which the city attorney replied that it would be about $3,000 to $5,000.
City Manager Ken Farfsing said other cities have imposed such laws, including the City of Cypress, adding that if PACs choose not to file with the City, it would at least show voters something about their legitimacy.
“If a PAC does not file with the City it sends a strong message to the voters that there’s something they don’t want to disclose,” he said. “Where I live, I want to at least be able to know that.”
The city attorney said provisions of the existing code would give voters and the City the ability to bring legal action against violating PACs or IECs, with reparations of three times the amount of a campaign expenditure. The California Fair Political Practices Commission has its own requirements and its own process for dealing with violations.
Councilmember Larry Forester said, enforceable or not, he at least wanted to see “something on the books.”
Vice Mayor Wilson said the Council may choose to make campaign financial statements available online but it’s not an “either/or” situation.
“I think it is important to have some type of policy, some type of requirement for anyone that’s spending money within an election to be able to disclose that,” he said. “I think that shouldn’t be an issue for anybody, any PAC, unless they clearly are doing some things that even they find are a little shady.”
Wilson added that including PACs and IECs in the City’s ordinance would help prevent other candidates from being accused of negative campaigning.
Just one week prior to the last municipal election in Signal Hill, voters received two separate fliers in the mail that targeted the records of incumbent Council candidates, along with Farfsing and City Attorney David Aleshire.
The fliers, which some people have called “hit pieces,” included snippets of newspaper articles and claimed that the longtime city officials have wasted public funds, while comparing the City to the beleaguered City of Bell. The fliers were sent out by an organization that calls itself Coalition for Clean Affordable Water. City officials said it is unclear whether the group is a PAC or an IEC.
In 2011, the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters (LALCV) PAC sent out glossy mailers that criticized incumbent Councilmember Forester’s environmental record, depicting a cartoon figure of the councilmember with a sign that read, “I Protect Polluters.”
But, unlike Coalition for Clean Affordable Water, LALCV has its own website that states the group is governed by a 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.” The website also states that the PAC endorses political candidates in L.A. County and its 88 cities.
Still, though Farfsing said the groups both have an identification number designated by the California Secretary of State, many Signal Hill voters and city officials have been mystified as to what individuals or political groups are behind the organizations.
Farfsing said the organizations are required to file campaign financial documents with the county clerk of the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder, but State requirements give such groups six months to file documents after an election, leaving voters in the dark as to the groups’ financial supporters or political interests.
Noll said he brought forward the proposal to include PACs and IECs in the city ordinance in an effort to make elections more transparent.
“You know, we have some real good reporting standards for any candidates running, and we have to disclose everything and show transparency,” he said. “We’re just asking the outside people that come forth in a negative way to be running on the same standards so we know who they are and the voter knows who they are. It takes the mystery away.”
Councilmember Tina Hansen said the new ordinance would protect all candidates.
“It’s just human nature,” she said. “If you have one group of candidates running and another group of candidates running, and that hit piece comes out, the natural response from the community is that it must have come from this other group of candidates. And so it is a protection in a way.”
In the case of Long Beach, City Attorney Robert Shannon told the Signal Tribune that the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce sued the City over a provision in the City’s election code that limited contributions for independent expenditure committees. He said, after a United States Supreme Court ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the provision in the City’s ordinance was unconstitutional and the City had no right to limit contributions. Shannon added, however, that requiring IECs to simply disclose their financial statements would be permissible.
Nonprofit fee waivers
The Council voted 5-0 to authorize City staff to prepare sample memorandums of understanding (MOUs), which are legal documents (often non-legally-binding) that describe bilateral or multilateral agreements between two parties, for nonprofits seeking waivers of fees associated with using city facilities.
The Council also authorized the Signal Hill Parks and Recreational Commission to grant six-month fee waivers for Fiscal Year 2013-2014 to allow for the completion of MOUs with each nonprofit requesting fee waivers.
The second six-month waivers, however, would be contingent on an MOU being completed and in place prior to Jan. 1.
If an MOU is not completed, nonprofits would still be able to use the facilities but would have to pay resident rates. To accomplish this, city staff would accept fee-waiver requests from nonprofits this month and include this item on the Parks and Recreation Commission agenda for approval in July.
For the current fiscal year, the City has granted about $13,660 worth of fee waivers. Currently, the only organization that has entered into an MOU with the City is the Signal Hill Community Foundation.
The Council agreed, however, to not enter into an MOU with the Signal Hill Historical Society until the organization resolves its internal issues.
In March, a decision to elect governing boardmembers of the Signal Hill Historical Society resulted in disagreement between two groups. Both groups are now claiming ownership of the same nonprofit.
In light of the situation, Pilar Alcivar-McCoy, community services director, recommended allowing the commission to grant fee waivers to both nonprofit groups. If both groups request the same day for an event, a longer process could be used to determine which group is granted the date, she said.
Vice Mayor Wilson, however, recommended that the City not grant fee waivers to either group while the organization resolves its issues.
“I think it’s better just to stay completely out of it,” he said. “I think the organization is a good organization, and it exists. The problem is there is controversy.”
Elizabeth Wise, who claims to be elected as the Historical Society’s preseident, submitted legal documents to the City regarding the matter, and said she has contacted the California attorney general to determine which group would serve as the official Signal Hill Historical Society. She said a cease-and-desist letter was sent to the opposing group.
“Our group has no problem in paying the fees and renting the facilities from the City until this all gets resolved,” Wise said. “We do not want the public to be deceived.”
Councilmember Hansen pointed out, however, that entering into an MOU does not imply the City endorses one organization over another.
“What the MOU does is just lay out ground rules as far as what the organization’s responsibilities are and what the City’s responsibilities are, but it’s not an endorsement of that organization,” Hansen said.
Alcivar-McCoy added that if two nonprofits request facilities for the same date and one is granted a fee waiver and another is paying residential rates, then the group paying would get to use the facilities. In the case of two nonprofits paying fee waivers, the City would have to draw. Additionally, if two nonprofits are paying then it would be first come, first served, she said.
Construction time limits
The Council voted 5-0 to amend a zoning ordinance to establish construction time limits to assure the completion of approved development projects. The item was brought forward last year since several projects have been ongoing for two to six years and have caused nuisance problems in the city, according to city staff.
The construction time limits, which were approved by the planning commission in May, are based on project size and project type and include provisions for time extensions, extension approval processes, along with fees and penalties.
For instance, a project with a floor-area size of 200 square feet or more would be required to start construction within 180 days of a building permit being issued. A site plan, however, could be valid for one year, with two six-month extensions.
The amendment includes notifying nearby property owners within 100 to 500 feet of a project upon issuance of a building permit, according to city staff.
If a project has not been completed within the time limit, penalties may ensue after a 30-day grace period. A penalty of $200 per day may be applied to projects that are not completed within the construction time limits and approved time extensions, with the maximum cumulative penalty totaling $36,000, according to city staff.
The next Signal Hill Council meeting will take place Tuesday, June 18 at 7pm in the City’s Council Chamber.