Roundtable: DeMaio Fundraising, Public Records Access, Teacher Training Grades
June 21, 2013 1:29 p.m.
Claire Trageser, KPBS News
Scott Lewis, Voice of San Diego
Kyla Calvert, KPBS News
SAUER: Joining me at the Roundtable today are Claire Trageser, enterprise reporter for KPBS news. Scott Lewis, CEO of voice of San Diego. And Kyla Calvert, KPBS education reporter. The results of November's race for San Diego mayor were barely in when refine Carl DeMaio started considering his next political move. In May, he formally declared he would run for the North County congressional seat now held by Democrat Scott Peters. In the months leading up to that, he was raising money as a politically oriented nonprofit. That raises questions now about how much money was raised, whether donors must be identified, and what such money can be used for when the head of a nonprofit charity suddenly becomes a candidate for federal office. Clair, how did you come across this story?
TRAGESER: Well, my co-reporter on this story is an investigative journalism fellow at Harvard university. And she's been looking for a long time at how various nonprofits are involved politically because a lot of nonprofits don't have to disclose their donors, but then they become involved politically. So people can call it dark money as a way to influence politics without having to say who's backing you. And so Reform San Diego is not really a charity. It's a 527 group. But it's one example of -- a local example of that situation.
SAUER: Okay. So you're looking into Reform San Diego. And then something big happened, Carl DeMaio announced he was running for Congress. How does this change things?
TRAGESER: A congressional run calls into question the money that DeMaio raised under Reform San Diego. Reform San Diego's contributions were unlimited from pretty much when he started, 2004 through now. But he had a big relaunch fundraiser in January. And so he's been raising money since then. The question is whether that money that he collected he could use to support his congressional campaign now that he's announced. And he says that he's not going to use any of Reform San Diego's money to support his campaign.
SAUER: And who going forward watchdogs that?
TRAGESER: They wouldn't be contributing directly to his campaign. It's more that they would be maybe ads that influence the race, things like that. So it's I think things that people will just have to have their eyes on.
LEWIS: This is awkwardness you can kind of expect. When DeMaio left and lost the mayor's race, there was a question about what he would do, obviously. And I don't think it was a given that he would run for this seat. I think he struggled with that decision, probably, and part of him wanted to continue to be a watchdog over San Diego, and part of him wanted to move into some political opportunity. He ended up choosing that. But that leaves behind what he already started building, which was this Reform San Diego group again. It's a committee that's been open for quite some time.
TRAGESER: Since 2004.
CALVERT: Are there lots of examples in other places, people who are in Congress already in office or candidates who are also chairing these kinds of organizations?
TRAGESER: No, that's one of the things that we found. It's extremely rare to have someone who is the chair of a pac or one of these political organizations who is also running for office.
SAUER: Would this be a Karl Rove, the head of a political pac, suddenly deciding to run for Congress? What happens to that money or --
TRAGESER: Maybe. That may be a more extreme example. When we asked DeMaio, are you going to continue to chair going forward, and he sent us an advisory from the FEC from 2003 that was about a Congressman who was also the chair of a pac. And the FEC said, yes, you can do this, but you have to limit the contributions to your political group, which usually those contributions are unlimited.
LEWIS: So there's the specific legal issue. Is he required -- these donors, they're covered. But then there's just basic transparency issues. He could voluntarily disclose who is making the contributions. He also said they were potentially confidential. So that's a reason to give. Or they could give anything they wanted.
TRAGESER: Right. They could give anything they wanted. He is going to have to disclose who is donating to Reform San Diego next month.
LEWIS: Oh, okay. So that's not an issue. What's the dark money?
TRAGESER: Groups like Americans for Prosperity, if they are working with Reform San Diego, people can give to them without having their donations disclosed.
LEWIS: So it's important to separate that from what's happening here.
CALVERT: So what is the difference between Reform San Diego and a group like Americans for Prosperity?
TRAGESER: It's so complicated. And even different election experts that we asked have differing opinions on it. Reform San Diego is a 527 group, which means that it does disclose its donations, but its contributions are unlimited. There's an -- election laws are fuzzy about whether or not 527 groups can advocate specifically for a candidate, saying you should really vote for this person or shouldn't. And it's somewhat unclear. But one of the things, a definitely thing that we did find is that reform San Diego should not be advocating specifically for Carl DeMaio because he is also the chair of it. But then we talked to people who say, okay, even if it's not going to run ads saying vote for Carl DeMaio, it does get him out there, and it already has been since January, reminding people who he is, supporting the same issues that he supports, and just keeping him at the front of people's minds.
SAUER: Now, this was happening, a Reform San Diego fundraiser in January.
TRAGESER: This was called a relaunch of Reform San Diego. It was after the election. Bob Filner had just been elected mayor. Carl DeMaio had lost. People were very down, it seemed, at the fundraiser. They were saying we cried for months and months after the election. It wasn't a good election for Republicans in general. So DeMaio brought everyone together and rerallied the troops. He said they were going to be actively involved in issues in San Diego, writing white papers, lobbying the City Council, and doing ballot measures if necessary. He called Reform San Diego a loaded gun, and the people at the fundraiser were the bullets saying we're going to force politicians to pay attention to us.
SAUER: We're going to have to turn to a different story.
SAUER: This story has an impact on how investigative reporters and other journalists do their jobs in California. As any veteran reporter will tell you, it's tough enough to pry public records from mayors, counter supervisors, etc. But a stealth amendment that was part of Governor Jerry Brown's proposed state budget would have lifted legal requirements that local governments assist reporters with a public records request in a timely manner. It's a money-saving move. The state spends about $20 million annually to reimburse localities for the cost of providing records. What about the cost of democracy and the public 'right to know? This is a story with a lot of moving parts. The blowback from the media and the public has been swift and strong. Scott, we're getting whiplash trying to follow this.
LEWIS: Well, it's dial back. The origins of this, are it's not really stealth. It's come up in February. We should acknowledge the UT San Diego, and Chris Cadelago who first wrote about this way back then. There were a lot of early warnings, and a lot of us last week woke up that this might actually happen. The origins are is that this program, the state is required to reimburse governments for things that it mandates that they do. And then it was ruled last year that this would also apply to the public records requests. And so the governor to prepare for some kind of onslaught of cost associated with this said let's go ahead and make it optional for local governments. If you request documents, they have ten days to respond to you. They don't have to give you the documents, but they've got to tell you. Then they have to tell you if they reject it, why and under what circumstances they rejected the records request.
SAUER: Is that one the ten days?
LEWIS: No, that can be after. But in a timely manner. And there's a requirement that they assist, and if they reject you you can counter because they use those rules and argue with them. Ultimately the Public Records Act is without teeth though, you can't get anything. If that continues in a log jam, you end up having to sue.
SAUER: Which is onerous and costly.
LEWIS: Right. So it's already a weak law as it exists. What the governor proposed, and what went through the assembly and the Senate, was to make that optional for local governments. So people were, like, well, governments will still do it. It's just optional. It's not the City of San Diego we were worried about, it's the little district, are the Sweetwaters, the water boards, all these different places that are required to right now comply to the public records law that would suddenly have cart blanche. All they have to do is say we're not going to reply in a verbal manner, and that would be their requirement that you wouldn't be able to get a lot of out of that.
SAUER: So you put a request in and it goes into this black hole.
LEWIS: It was very scary. That's one of these things that we have as people who hold government accountable and look into government. This was so precious to us, we didn't even imagine the thing would be threatened like this. They gutted it, because it was a power of the government.
SAUER: What would your job be like?
LEWIS: We use it every week. Sometimes three or four times a week. We're doing some public safety investigations right now that require regular public records requests. This is a very important thing. So let me catch up. The -- there was out an outcry, we assigned a letter, along with a number of us here. And they reconsidered and so I'm not quite sure in the legislature, it keeps going back and forth. But both the Senate and the assembly have agreed to roll back their move on that. And now there's also a push to actually put this into the constitution. It's not just a law, but it's actually in the constitution. And that would actually get around this requirement of mandates and reimbursement because it's no longer just a state law mandating it, this is just the way things are.
SAUER: Do you think if they wind up with this, that it could strengthen the law?
LEWIS: It's an opportunity, yes.
CALVERT: Would that waiving of that constitutional amendment, saying oh, local governments have to comply with this law, but the state doesn't have to reimburse them, would that only apply to this? There are all sorts of state mandates that they aren't funding for a lot of different types of local governments.
LEWIS: I don't know. I do know this is an opportunity as they craft that constitutional amendment to potentially avoid something like that, but also maybe to do something broader. Of all the places, Florida has a very powerful public records law. Other places have some with actual teeth. If they don't comply, it comes with punishment, not just attorneys' fees.
SAUER: Florida's sunshine law started many years okay. It's simple. It says the public's business should be public, period.
LEWIS: Yeah. And so a lot of us were just -- it came the same week that the democratic supermajority also voted in a pay increase for their own politicians. So we have to save money by gutting this precious law and yet we can afford better pay. So it was just a very uncomfortable discussion. And I think a lot of them saw the writing on the wall with these mailers that looked horrible.
TRAGESER: One of the other things I think that they reported is that they actually didn't know how much money this was going to save. I think they said tens of millions of dollars. But she questioned them on that and said, you know, how do you know? Have you done the calculation and they said basically no.
LEWIS: Yeah, it was horribly justified. Even the public -- you had somebody like assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez who was trying to -- trying to explain why she would vote for this, and it was because it was tied with a worker protection bill on budgets. So she can vote against the trailer bill, but she didn't want to vote against the worker protections.
SAUER: So you got to go back and forth. You revealed that twitter conversation.
LEWIS: Well, yeah, I think she was trying to defend why she would vote for it. She said, like, everything comes with things you don't like. But this would have looked horrible if somebody like that tries to end up running for mayor. I could just see the mayor "voted to gut the public's access to records!" It's horrible!
SAUER: Is this surprising a former labor leader known as a progressive would --
LEWIS: She didn't like it. She made that clear. And she was thrilld when it pulled off. But that was a tough first vote for her to have to deal with, I'm sure. Well, I don't know if it was a first one. But it was a tough decision for a lot of them. The media really spoke out, a lot of tough letters and editorials. And I think that the -- it worked out hopefully. But it also opened up the opportunity maybe through this crisis, maybe we can do something better.
SAUER: Last year, we saw a similar thing with the notification of public meetings. And that went through, did it not?
LEWIS: Yeah, the Brown Act is the open meetings law in California that requires that people who run a public organization like the City Council can't get-together without it being noticed. And I think the same thing went through. They said you can't require this unless you reimburse.
SAUER: Compare this for us, public records requests, and the freedom of information act.
LEWIS: Well, are the freedom of information act is for the federal government.
MAUREEN SAUER: So the FOIA, we can't apply that locally and trump this.
LEWIS: No. But there are local ordinances in other cities that are even more strong than in other places. So there's nothing to proclude these agencies from doing more transparency efforts. And I would encourage that. But as far as federal or whatever mandates, no.
SAUER: And where does this stand now? It's been moving so fast.
LEWIS: The weird one was the Senate. Darrell Steinberg was saying oh, prove it to me that this is a problem! And he's going to say, well, we can support constitutional amendments but I'm going to keep this thing for a while. I think he got even more blowback and switched that again. So right now, it looks like both houses will pass a law reversing the decision on that. And then they will still pursue a constitutional amendment. Hopefully that's where it stands, but it could change.
TRAGESER: I think it's also important to point out that it's not just journalists who use this.
TRAGESER: It's members of the public. And I've done stories where people are dealing with overcharges on their downtown properties and are using this regularly to get information.
SAUER: So it affects every citizen.
CALVERT: Academics are using it for search and stuff like that as well.
SAUER: All right. We'll wrap it there.
SAUER: Another controversy in the news this week. It has to do with a report by the U.S. news and world report this week for aspiring teachers in San Diego. That magazine published its survey of teacher prep programs. Some of the programs offered in San Diego got As, some got Fs. Kyla, give us the highlights.
CALVERT: It was conducted by a group called the national counsel on teacher quality. So U.S. news report was the publisher. They didn't have anything to do with the methodology and the reviewing of programs. But the national council on teacher quality has been around for quite a while. And basically they say that they're a nonpartisan group, and they're -- their board of advisors has a variety of people with political backgrounds on it. But they want to see more effective teachers in the classroom. There are studies that say that an effective teacher makes the biggest difference in a student's performance gains overtime of all the in-school factors that you can look at. So they have had various campaigns to promote the improvement of teacher preparation in various ways. So this is their first national review of all university-based programs.
SAUER: It's a noble goal.
CALVERT: Sure. Of course. And their report basically said that the vast majority of teacher prep programs just are not living up to the standards that they were measuring them against.
SAUER: So what were they looking for?
CALVERT: They had about 18 things that they were measuring, programs on and they fell into four major categories, and those were competitiveness and admissions to the programs, content preparation, so that the teachers were in classes that were on the material that they would be teaching to students. Elementary level math. Middle school level math. That sort of thing. That that content line that they were learning lined up with the new common core standards for math and English that are going to be rolled out into classrooms this coming year. The next one was professional skills in terms of classroom management, lesson planning, just the nuts and bolts things they need to know to keep their classes sort of in working order. And then outcomes. So whether these programs were collecting data on how well their teachers were performing once they left the program and whether they were making a difference in their students' performance.
SAUER: UC San Diego's program to prepare middle and high school teachers were just one of four standouts in California.
CALVERT: The first thing they got the top marks on were -- was selectivity. It's a competitive and selective place to get into. The other ones were the common core curriculum content. So the high school -- future high school teachers were getting this content preparation. And just the classroom management nuts and bolts, and the outcomes. I think tracking outcomes is one of the things that most of the programs did perform relatively well on. Though it was sort of all the other areas where they were falling short.
SAUER: All right. And you would think -- Scott?
LEWIS: Well, teacher quality is such an important thing, but it does come loaded. Teachers see that as -- any discussion of performance or quality or better evaluation, they see that as a potential attack on --
LEWIS: Right. Or a potential attack on seniority type systems. On the other hand, a lot of statistics have pointed out that we end up getting not the highest performers in college out of college into the teaching profession. They say, well, let's raise salaries and make it more attractive. On the other hand, how do we evaluate whether that actually works? So this debate is always going to be a big deal.
CALVERT: Yeah, and I think it's really picked up momentum nationally in the last couple of years. The whole idea of are people going into teaching getting the preparation they need? But as you alluded to, UC San Diego, the whole UC system basically says this report is -- basically invalid. We don't agree with the way they conducted this review.
SAUER: Right. So they got good marks, and yet they're dumping on the report. Why?
CALVERT: Well, because what the national couple for teacher quality was they drew up this list of criteria that would indicate to them that these programs were meeting these standards. And so what they then did was basically a document review. They just got, you know, syllabi, course syllabi and things like that and went through and said, okay, on paper, these programs require their students to do all of these things that are -- criteria say future teachers should be required to do.
SAUER: But what was missing?
CALVERT: Well, they didn't go to any of the programs, they didn't observe in any of the am process, they didn't do any interviews.
SAUER: No boots on the ground.
CALVERT: Right. So because of that, the cal state university system, New York State's university system, Florida, and I believe Maryland and some other states just opted out of the review all together. Point Loma Nazarene opted out. University of San Diego opted out. And so what the national council ended up doing was basically using public records requests to get what course syllabi were available. But then they also didn't take their preliminary result back to the universities and say here's what we got. Is that accurate? So basically all of these reporters have uncovered instances in which the council's report is listing programs that don't exist at schools, have excluded programs that do exist. UC San Diego was confused because they submitted all the same documentation for their program that trains elementary school teachers. But that didn't -- that program didn't end up with a final rating for some reason.
SAUER: How did the council defend its approach?
CALVERT: Basically they said that this is comprehensive, this is a very scientific method. It's based on other similar studies in the past. And it was a rigorous and fair.
SAUER: All right. Very good.