Paso Robles city officials manipulate election?
August 13, 2012
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
EDITOR’S NOTE: See both versions of City Council candidate Jim Reed’s campaign statement at the bottom of this story.
Jim Reed wanted to help initiate major changes in the way Paso Robles’ government is being managed, and that’s why the independent designer and draftsman said he filed city council election papers late last week along with a brief campaign statement outlining his reasons for seeking office.
But city administrators reading his statement didn’t like two references to “the current city council,” and ordered that editing alterations be made. That demand appears to have been prohibited by state law which only allows city officials to reject a statement because of an excessive word count.
For example, city officials objected to Reed’s statements about city spending.
“The current city council claim they are fiscally responsible, yet in fiscal year 2002-03 our city council spent about $32,000,000, ” Reed said in his original statement. “This year they will spend over $53,000,000 and provide less services, all while our roads are in dangerous disrepair and we lose access to city facilities such as the Centennial Park pool.”
Assistant City Manager Meg Williamson said she “made the call” to require the changes. She also said she sees no conflict in her actions even though Reed has made no secret of his desire to work for a change in the council lineup, one that would vote to dismiss Williamson’s boss, City Manager James App.
Reed was one of many Paso Robles residents who responded with a display of public indignation earlier this year following several controversial municipal decisions by App and the present council. One particular action widely perceived as exacerbating the city’s perilous fiscal situation was a unanimous decision by the present council to authorize a $250,000 payout to former police chief Lisa Solomon-Chitty, who left her post in March under allegations she mismanaged the department and sexually assaulted several of her officers.
App, the city’s top administrator for 16 years, was quickly conjoined with the mayor and council as a target of the civic unrest.
Yet, despite the months-long hue and cry in Paso Robles, only Reed, a political newcomer, and one-time council member Steve Martin filed for a shot at two council seats, which will be defended by incumbents Fred Strong and Nick Gilman. Mayor Duane Picanco will run unchallenged, as will Treasurer Mike Compton and City Clerk Dennis Fansler.
Reed filed his papers as required with Fansler, the elected official whose job it is to receive and ascertain the papers are correctly done. For the city’s examination of Reed’s submission, Williamson joined Fansler, who doubles as a Public Works Department maintenance supervisor, and another Public Works employee, Sherri Scott. Williamson referred to this as “the elections group.” All three answer directly to App.
“When one pulls candidacy papers,” Williamson said, “we are very careful we go through a check, to make sure we cover all the information for a candidate.”
Reed’s brief statement was produced in accordance with a provision of the California Elections Code authorizing candidates to state their qualifications for the ballot.
San Luis Obispo attorney Stew Jenkins said neither Williamson nor the city clerk should have involved themselves in requiring changes in Reed’s statement.
“While a city clerk receives these candidate statements, the clerk is not authorized to make any changes or refuse to take the candidate’s statement beyond determining if the word limitations are exceeded,” said Jenkins. “The clerk does not serve as a gate keeper to determine if the candidate’s statement is accurate, fair, or even if it contains matters that criticize or libel the candidate’s opponents.”
Jenkins noted there is good reason for this policy.
“To make those determinations would necessarily draw the city elections clerks out of the neutrality they must maintain to fairly conduct an election,” he said. “Only the court may change or delete materials from a candidate’s sample ballot statement and only then on a limited basis.”
County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald disagrees with that contention.
“The cities make their own decision as to what to accept,” she wrote in an email. “If I were presented with Reed’s first statement, I would discuss with my counsel whether it violated state code before accepting it.”
That’s way off base, according to attorney Jenkins.
The law and subsequent court rulings, he said, “make it clear that the no one other than the court may amend or delete portions of a candidate’s sample ballot statement. Even the candidate may not amend the ballot statement once it has been submitted to the clerk – even if it was submitted earlier than the deadline. If the candidate has second thoughts, the candidate is limited during a very short window to withdrawing the statement. And there is no ability of the candidate to resubmit a new or different statement provided by the Elections Code.”
The clerk is limited to determining if a candidate’s statement fits into the required 200-word limit.
Within a 10-day window, “any citizen can bring a challenge to the candidate statement, and the challenge may only be made in a court,” Jenkins said.
Williamson said the elections group is the result of “some work duties of the city clerk’s position which have been spread around to others.
“Fansler has different areas of focus, so we give support and guidance, handled through the city manager’s office. If there’s a call to be made on the elections code, then Dennis Fansler and I go through that together. I might run it past legal counsel, too.
“But specifically, I would be making that call.”
Williamson explained Scott’s role in the process: “Her skill set is applicable to the needs for election support, so she’s pulled in (to the elections process),” Williamson said. “So we have multiple bodies in there. It’s not to intimidate. It’s just to get the work done. It’s administrative support.”
She declined to discuss specifics of Reed’s statements, noting that App was out of town.
“I don’t feel comfortable discussing the statement because they are confidential until the end of the day (Friday),” Williamson said.
According to state law, a candidate’s statement “may not include references to other candidates or to another candidate’s character, qualities or activities,” Williamson said, noting she based her decision on the fact that “there are incumbents sitting on the council. That’s where the discussion came from.”
The other new council candidate, Martin, did not return phone calls from CalCoastNews.
Jim Reed’s first campaign statement which city officials rejected:
For 25 years I’ve called Paso Robles my home. Sadly, Paso Robles has changed from a small town with a responsive city council attuned to the needs of its residents into a community with an overbearing City Government engrossed in its own bureaucratic regulations and increased costs.
The current City Council claim they are fiscally responsible, yet in the fiscal year 2002-03 our City council spent about $32,000,000. This year they will spend over $53,000,000 and provide less services, all while our roads are in dangerous disrepair and we lose access to city facilities such as the Centennial Park pool.
Rather than taking more money out of our pockets with a proposed ballot measure to increase our sales tax, the City Council should restore fiscal oversight and ease the burden of unnecessary regulations so that our businesses can prosper. We need creative solutions to cut administrative overhead and above all, we need leadership that will again focus on serving the public and rebuilding our infrastructure.
I ask for your vote and support as it is time for a change that will allow Paso Robles to once again flourish.
Jim Reed’s second statement written with three city employees giving suggestions. The city approved this version:
For 25 years I’ve called Paso Robes my home. Sadly, Paso Robles has changed from a small town with a responsive city council attuned to the need of its residents into a community with an overbearing bureaucracy engrossed in its own increased regulations and related costs.
In the fiscal year 2002-03 our city budget was approximately $32,000,000, this year’s budget is over $53,000,000 and provides less services, all while our roads are in dangerous disrepair and we have lost access to city facilities such as the Centennial Park pool.
Rather than taking more money out of our pockets with a proposed ballot measure to increase our sales tax, I would work to restore responsible fiscal oversight and ease the burden of unnecessary regulations so our businesses can prosper. We need creative solutions to cut administrative overhead and above all, we need leadership that will focus on serving the public and rebuilding Paso Robles deteriorated infrastructure.
As a first time candidate for any elected office, I am running for city council out of concern for our future. I ask for your vote as it is time for a change that will allow Paso Robles to once again flourish under common sense solutions.