Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sweetwater approves campaign finance reform; all it took was a few indictments; now what about other school districts?

An image captured in January 2012, at one of the many heated meetings of the Sweetwater trustees.

Sweetwater School Board to Consider Campaign Finance Reform
Under the current rules, a board member can accept an unlimited amount of money from a contractor seeking or performing work with the district.
By Wendy Fry
Jan 14, 2014

The Sweetwater Union High School District will vote on campaign finance reform Tuesday in the wake of a two-year criminal probe into relationships between contractors and South County politicians.

The community has been persistent in getting the item on the agenda, despite being blocked in the past by the board and superintendent.

The proposal would limit campaign contributions to $750 for a single election contest for candidates for the board of trustees.

It also seeks to ban candidates running for school board to take contributions from anyone other than individuals or political party committees.

...This comes after three Sweetwater Union High School District board members were accused of accepting thousands of dollars on gifts and meals, allegedly for awarding construction contracts to contributing companies.

No limits are currently in place. Under the current rules, a board member can accept an unlimited amount of money from a contractor seeking or performing work with the district. For example, during his 2010 reelection campaign, Board President Jim Cartmill accepted a $20,000 contribution from SGI Construction Management, which working at the time for the district under the voter-approved $644 million bond measure.

The proposed campaign finance rules would do nothing to curb the often big amounts of money spent on behalf of candidates through independent committees. A political party could, for example, spend as much as it wants independently to promote a candidate, as long as the campaign was not coordinated with the candidate.

Sweetwater board approves campaign reform
By Allison Sampite-Montecalvo
Jan. 14, 2014

CHULA VISTA — The Sweetwater Union High School District school board, with three members facing criminal charges in a pay-to-play case brought by the District Attorney’s Office, voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of campaign finance reform.

The reform was supported by trustees Jim Cartmill, John McCann and Bertha Lopez. Trustee Pearl Quiñones was absent. Cartmill, Lopez and Quiñones have been indicted in the corruption investigation.

Many residents consider the reform decision a huge step forward in transparency and restoring trust. Community member Maty Adato said the vote was a move in the right direction.

“This is the fifth time this issue have been on the agenda in two years,” she said. “They’ve never wanted to adopt it.”

The decision limited campaign contributions that can be made to board candidates to a maximum of $750. Only individual donors would be allowed to make contributions. Previously there was no limit on the amount or type of campaign contributions that a school board candidate could accept.

The resolution makes it “unlawful for an individual to make, or for a candidate or a controlled committee to solicit or accept” a contribution more than $750 for a single election contest.

“The limit would apply to both campaign committees and also to legal defense funds, which are additional separate fundraising mechanisms that elected officials may use when they’re facing particular illegal matters related to their office,” said Christine Cameron, an attorney who works for the district. Cameron also said the knowing solicitation of district employees for contributions is prohibited.

“The resolution also provides that at a later time the board would develop procedures for investigating violations of the rules but in the meantime a complaint submitted to the superintendent and signed by the complainant would have to be investigated using an independent investigator,” she said.

A controversial item on how to fill a board seat vacated by a member who pleaded guilty in the corruption case didn’t make it to a vote Tuesday. Although the members present formed a quorum, a decision on the vacant seat issue requires the support of three or more board members, and that appeared unlikely, so the matter was delayed. Board members also felt it was important to include Quiñones in the decision.

The vacancy was created when Arlie Ricasa resigned after pleading guilty Dec. 19 to a misdemeanor charge of accepting gifts above state limits. The Sweetwater indictments were among others at the San Ysidro School District and Southwestern College.

The board decided it would try and get in touch with Quiñones as soon as possible and set another meeting to either decide on a process for a provisional appointment or go forward with a special election.

But the trustees are up against a ticking clock.

The school district’s attorney, Dan Shinoff, said that according to board bylaws, members must fill the vacant seat within 60 days, or Feb. 17. The more time that passes the more likely it is a special election would be held, which Shinoff said could cost up to $1.5 million for a nine-month appointment (when Ricasa’s term would have expired). Shinoff said the special election would cause “a significant fiscal impact on the district.”

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