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Ethics Commission Shrinks As Campaign Finance Limits Are Lifted

Audio

Aired 3/22/10

Today is a deadline for candidates to report how much they have raised so far for this year’s June primary. As the election season kicks off, the rules of the game in the city of San Diego are changing.

Today is a deadline for candidates to report how much they have raised so far for this year’s June primary. As the election season kicks off, the rules of the game in the city of San Diego are changing.

New laws will change who can contribute and raise the limits on how much money each contributor can give. At the same time, the city’s watchdog on campaign lobbying -- the Ethics Commission -- is struggling to remain effective.

Encouraged by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and trade unions to contribute to campaigns, San Diego’s Republican Party has successfully challenged the city’s campaign contribution laws. Whereas before political parties couldn’t contribute to candidates, now they can.

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith says this is a major shift in campaign spending law.

“We need to explore what is a reasonable contribution limit for political parties,” he said. “And that is a difficult issue that has not been clarified by the courts: what is reasonable.”

A second major change that will open the floodgates to more campaign money allows corporations or labor groups to contribute as much as they want to political action committees.

Stacey Fulhorst, director of San Diego’s Ethics Commission, says the city is appealing to delay that change in the law.

“That does present difficulties, to change the rules in the middle of an election cycle,” she said.

When the new rules do go into effect, much more money will likely flow into campaigns. That raises the stakes for watchdog agencies, like the Ethics Commission, which try to make sure campaign finance laws are obeyed.

But instead of beefing up its powers, the city’s Ethics Commission is currently going through something of a meltdown. It has always been short of appointees to serve on the board. Now one member is stepping down, and Chairman Richard Valdez is resigning by June 30th, one year earlier than the end of his term. Valdez says he simply cannot balance the work load of his private practice and the Commission’s workload.

Richard Valdez, chair of the ethics commission.
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Above: Richard Valdez, chair of the ethics commission.

The Commission has fined a number of elected officials for campaign violations, and there is evidence of some political pushback from councilmembers. Councilwoman Marti Emerald has refused to accept a $10,000 fine levied against her, forcing the commission to hold hearings to resolve the matter. Valdez says he wants to see that issue through before he leaves, but he is concerned that with his departure there won’t be enough commissioners to function.

“You can function with less than seven people,” he said. “We’d had six. With the departure of Commissioner Cabrera, we’re down to five, with my departure we’re down to four, then that does pose a problem with an ability to function and make determinations with fines and levy those fines.”

Valdez is urging the city to come up with some new appointments.

But councilmembers Donna Frye and Carl DeMaio say having the mayor appoint the ethics commissioners and the council approve them is a conflict of interest.

“There is a perception among the public that the elected officials who will be regulated and potentially fined by the Ethics Commission are the ones who decide who those people are," Frye said. "I just think that’s a problem.”

Frye and DeMaio propose that the public suggest possible ethics commissioners, who are then vetted by three retired judges picked by the city attorney. The judges would then forward those names to the mayor.

Robert Fellmeth, professor of Public Interest Law at USD, agrees that the ethics commissioners have a vital role and should be more independent of the city officials who appoint them.

“They have done a pretty nice job of being impartial and in looking at the facts,” Fellmeth said. “It’s been a creditable organization. It’s just that they need to be separate from the folks they are monitoring. You imprint on who appoints you … that’s just natural.”

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith says he is ready to review suggestions on how the commission is appointed. In the mean time, he says the first order of business is to make sure the commission does not stop functioning all together.

“We have a pool of candidates. If the mayor does need more and it’s possible because it’s been some time, then call on the Council and my office and we can give some more nominations,” said Goldsmith.

The mayor’s office says he will announce his new nominations in the next week or two.

With a new election season getting underway and new, higher campaign finance limits to contend with, the Ethics Commission’s role will be more vital than ever.

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