Op-Ed: Political Reform in Newport Questioned

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By Newport Beach Councilman Keith Curry

Mayor Diane Dixon recently commented in the media on my proposed political reforms, and we need to set the record straight on some issues.

I proposed four specific actions. The first is to make the city’s longstanding limit on campaign contributions enforceable by the city attorney.

In 2014, Scott Peotter received two contributions that exceeded the $1100 limit.  One, from people associated with Woody’s Wharf, was flagged by the City Clerk. The second was an excess donation from Councilman Duffield noted in a complaint from a citizen. Peotter returned both donations after the fact.

It was a surprise to the city council to realize that because of some awkward wording in the ordinance saying the city attorney can enforce the law “only to the extent that the office has authority to enforce the provisions of the Political Reform Act,” the city attorney cannot enforce our own laws.

The Political Reform act was written roughly 20 years before the city ordinance and never contemplated city attorneys to enforce its provisions. Removing these 19 words so that the city attorney can enforce our own laws does not require a citizen’s committee or a lot of time. It requires a lawyer to write the ordinance in clear language. This is an important issue because the penalty for violation of this provision is removal from office. Failure to fix this issue now, invites candidates with a nod and a wink to violate it in the fall. I think we should fix it. Dixon does not.

The second proposal is to extend our campaign contribution limits to so called “slate mail committees.” When candidates band together, it appears that the contribution limits magically disappear. These are not independent expenditure committees, they are controlled and supported by the candidates.

In the last election, the Neighborhood Preservation Committee (“NPC”), a slate mail committee controlled by Dave Ellis, raised more than $96,000 for the Team Newport candidates. Dixon herself contributed $5,000. Several others with business before the city council contributed between $10,000 and $25,000 to evade the $1,100 limits.

Early in 2015, Dixon led efforts to settle litigation by Fritz Duda, a property owner adjacent to the old city hall related to easement issues. Duda and his associates contributed $22,625 to the NPC. Should we close this loophole that allows major donors to evade the contribution limit? I say yes, Dixon says no. You decide.

The third proposal is to ban campaign fundraising until the year of the election and six months after to retire debt. This was never an issue in our city until the last election. Since then, Dixon, who ran unopposed, held a fund raiser for her 2018 effort in December 2015, where she raised $12,700, almost exclusively from people having business before the city council. One donor, Southside Towing, gave $500 and at the very next council meeting, the city council substituted the Police Department’s top ranked recommended tow company with Southside, who had been rated last, and awarded them a lucrative towing contract.

Dixon is quick to say she voted against Southside on this issue, but I will leave to you the residents to determine if raising money three years before an election, from people who will have major contracts before the council, sometimes within days, passes your test for ethics and appropriate public process. I say it does not. Dixon apparently disagrees.

The final reform would require that those who lobby the city council register and disclose their clients to the public. This is a practice followed at the federal, state, and county levels and at hundreds of other cities and public agencies.

Reputable lobbyists support this requirement. It is an issue in Newport Beach because I am told by his other clients that Dave Ellis is retained to lobby for the Museum Tower project, but we don’t know for sure because there is no requirement for him to register.

After getting his candidates elected, he offers his services to those with business before the council. My proposal does not prohibit anyone from lobbying, but is does require that the public be told who is working for who.

By the way, it is not only the public that is in the dark. Council Members themselves don’t really know who may be paying their campaign consultant to give advice to the council. I think we should do this now. Dixon disagrees. These are straight forward reforms I think the vast majority of our city can embrace now.

In the course of this debate, Dixon and her allies have attacked me, challenged my motives and proposed months long delays. What she and the others have not done is discuss the relative merits of these four proposals. So we are clear, delaying this issue is simply a way to avoid dealing with these ideas and fixing what are obvious problems in our laws.

Ask yourself, do you need a committee to reach an opinion on where you stand on these four ideas? Disclosure of lobbyist employers in particular has nothing to do with the upcoming election cycle so why the delay? I am not running for future office and none of these reforms will affect the results of the last election.

Fundraising will always be part of politics, but these four, straightforward reforms will increase transparency, protect the integrity of our political system and remove the appearances of conflict that have marked the past year.

Decide for yourself where you stand on this issue and let your councilmember know.

Correction appended: In the May 13 issue of the Newport Beach Independent, a response to Councilman Keith Curry’s Op/Ed piece about campaign reform was printed in our newspaper—a response that was initially posted on our website. The comment was credited to Portia Weiss, who informed us that she did not in fact post that comment, leading her to believe that someone was falsely using her name. We have removed the original comment from our website, and will print a correction in this week’s newspaper. We apologize for not properly verifying authorship of the original comment. – NB Indy/May 17. 2016]

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Councilmen Curry’s recommendations would have previously (prior to Team Newport having taken over control of the city council) faced no objections. The problem here is that the members of Team Newport used these very “loopholes” to literally bulldoze the voters into electing new members who would have never been given a second glance, if not for the piles of ill gotten and tainted money. Under any analysis, these modest changes to the election laws of Newport Beach should be implemented as soon as practicable or else these 4 Team Newport members should be either impeached or voted out of office at the next city election.

  2. These proposals were initially championed by Dixon who requested a “blue ribbon team” to help carry them out– until she had a sudden change of heart, stating that she didn’t want to do it in “an election year”.

    However, literally every-other-year is an election year in Newport, and many candidates file the year prior. This election year, we had people file in 2015, and for Dixon’s seat in 2014, she filed in 2013– so there is literally zero years in which political fundraising are not occurring.

    It is clear that this has nothing to do with an election-year cycle, and everything to do with trying to kick the can. And this is coming from me– someone who is running for office THIS YEAR.

    We need some of these reforms and I am happy to comply with them for the betterment of Newport Beach. There is no excuse to kick the can, other than to wait until Curry leaves in order to allow it to simply wash under the bridge and be forever forgotten as Big Money revs up to be even more powerful.

    It’s time to take our city back.

  3. This is the real Portia Weiss. I did not make this comment. Strangely, someone is impersonating me for some unknown reason. I have requested that the editor, Christopher Trela, investigate the source of this misleading and malicious (in it’s intent to impersonate me) posting to the best of his ability. I am also requesting that he keep this posting and reply in place so that anyone reading it can see that it is under investigation. I am also requesting a prominent printed retraction in the next issue.

    • In the May 13 issue of the Newport Beach Independent, a response to Councilman Keith Curry’s Op/Ed piece about campaign reform was printed in our newspaper—a response that was initially posted on our website. The comment was credited to Portia Weiss, who informed us that she did not in fact post that comment, leading her to believe that someone was falsely using her name. We have removed the original comment from our website, and will print a correction in this week’s newspaper. We apologize for not properly verifying authorship of the original comment. – NB Indy

  4. These Campaign reforms are nothing more than a restriction on free speech. I am surprised at you Mike for taking Curry’s side on this issue as it means bigger government and more regulation. Usually these types of regulations favor incumbents, so to me it took no courage for Curry as he is termed out and lots of courage by Diane Dixon to not take the bait.

    Check out my May newsletter where I go into more detail on the issue.

    http://tinyurl.com/peotter05052016