‘Dark money’ pushing thumb on council races – The Coast News Group
Thousands of dollars of so-called “dark money” is emerging as a major factor in city council races in a pair of North County cities. In Encinitas and San Marcos, two cities where stakes are high in their respective council races, political action committees have pumped thousands into candidates.
SAN MARCOS-The Deputy Sheriffs Association PAC has received thousands from developers and the Building Industry Association of San Diego and has spent a corresponding amount on candidates throughout the county, almost exclusively on Republican or conservative candidates.
One of the races where the Deputy Sheriffs Association and Building Industry Association’s influence has been most heavily felt is San Marcos, where the PAC has spent thousands in mailers and campaign signs in favor of Rebecca Jones for mayor and council candidates Mike Sannella and Craig Garcia.
Many of the same individual contributors who have contributed to the Building Industry Association’s PAC and the Deputy Sheriffs committee have also contributed to an Irvine-based PAC called the California Taxpayers Coalition, which according to records has spent $10,500 in printing and mailing costs against one of Sannella’s opponents, Randy Walton.
One of the largest contributors to the Taxpayers Coalition is Diversified Projects, Inc., which has contributed $12,5000 to the committee. The Laguna Beach-based company was behind the controversial San Marcos Highlands project. Walton has aligned himself with Chris Orlando, current councilman and mayoral candidate, the lone council member to vote against the Highlands project.
One of the other major contributors is Lance Waite, who is developer behind the Sunshine Gardens project, a 193-unit multi-family project on 14.4-acres near San Marcos’ southeastern city limits that is currently being processed by the city.
Waite contributed $5,000 to each the Taxpayers Coalition and the Deputy Sheriffs PAC. Jones returned a $250 contribution Waite made to her campaign this year.
San Marcos bars developers from contributing to campaigns within 12 months of a council vote.
Walton, a registered Democrat, said the race has gotten ugly as a result of the mailers paid for, and said developers are actively trying to deceive voters by funneling money into committees that appear to be advocating for taxpayers or law enforcement.
“It’s an outright effort to deceive voters, by putting out mailers saying that something is ‘law enforcement’s choice,’ when in reality, it’s thousands of dollars from developers and the building industry,” Walton said. “Most voters don’t know to look at the campaign finance forms and see who is behind some of these committees.
“And on the other side, there isn’t a group of citizens forming PACs, so there is no countervailing weight and it’s kind of an unfair advantage to the candidates who benefit from them,” Walton said.
“San Marcos has very strict limits on contributions to candidates of just $250,” Jones said in an email to The Coast News. “At that level, it would be difficult for anyone to influence an elected official in our city. As for independent expenditures, they are just that — independent. I have no ability to control their activities and am legally prohibited from doing so.”
The third candidates in the mayor’s and Dist. 2 races, Bradley Zink and Eric Flodine, respectively, have not been the target of any independent expenditures, nor have any been raised on their behalf.
Kousser said that the pattern of developers who otherwise would not be able to contribute to the campaigns due to the city laws contributing even more money through the PACs raises ethical concerns from the donor, not the recipient.
“I would say that the pattern and timing of the donations shows a clear circumvention of the goal of the campaign finance limits,” Kousser said. “But there’s no proof that the candidate is influenced by these contributions. So while it’s not an ethical violation on behalf of the candidate, it looks like a donor is clearly trying to have the same effect on the election and make the same contribution through a different route.”
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