New ethics officer says city law requires public reports for any in-kind contributions valued at more than $1.
By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times
City Council candidates peppered city elections ethics consultant Robert Stern with technical questions about the city’s elections code last week, as the new ethics chief made public his plans to police this spring’s election campaign.
Stern said he will ignore frivolous complaints, but will issue findings quickly, often within 24 hours of a complaint being filed. Those findings will be reported in press releases, he said.
Malibu is one of a handful of California cities that hires an elections ethics expert to investigate complaints from council candidates about supposedly unfair or inaccurate election claims, and issue findings. The city is paying the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, for which Stern works, $20,000 to police the race by five candidates for two seats.
Stern is not related to Mayor Andy Stern, who is running for re-election. Challengers Ryan Embree, Ed Gillespie and John Mazza are also in the race. Councilmember Sharon Barovsky was recently declared ineligible to run by a superior court judge. However, a three-judge Court of Appeal panel is hearing arguments on the case this week and could overturn Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs’ ruling.
In the 2004 election, ethics counsel Xandra Kayden wrote opinion columns published in The Malibu Times that were criticized by some candidates as being biased, and criticized by some residents as inappropriate.
“I think that what she wrote in the newspaper was merely her opinions about issues, and that was outrageous,” said Mazza, who was a write-in candidate in the 2004 election.
“That’s just not true, John,” countered Barovsky, who got a quick reply from Mazza.
“Oh, yes, she characterized some of the candidates as pro-development or anti-development, and that was in her column, on the record,” Mazza said.
Robert Stern said he lives just outside Malibu city limits, and follows city issues closely. But he said it will not be his job to regulate pure speech, but will enforce violations of city elections spending and electioneering policies.
“I have an enforcement policy,” he said. “I believe that most people try to comply with the law, and while they may approach the line, they don’t try to go over the line.”
Stern said he had not yet decided whether to appoint a commission of nonresidents to assist him in formulating statements to be issued when his office confirms that a candidate has made inaccurate or misleading statements.
“I think that was a disaster two years ago,” Mazza said. “Most of the input on this secret commission came from the city attorney, and there was a lot of nitpicking going on.”
“It seemed to work for me,” she said. “A lot of outrageous misstatements get made and they should be called to account by an objective person. It’s called elevating the public discourse.”
Most of the meeting last week consisted of Stern reminding the five candidates that Malibu’s election laws are stricter than state regulations. For example, he said the monetary value of a telephone-calling center in a real estate office would have to be publicly reported, including pro-rated rent and telephone costs.
“Every in-kind contribution, of one dollar or more, has to be reported on the campaign statement,” he said.
The campaign finance reports are due to be filed March 2 and March 17, and daily reports are required between March 17 and Election Day, April 11.
Stern said Malibu’s elections law is so strong that parts of it may go too far.
“For example, it says that no advertisement can support any candidate by name without that candidate’s express written permission,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s constitutional, but that’s what it says.”