Malibu political activist Remy O’Neill, the target of an unsuccessful prosecution for alleged violations of the city’s campaign finance ordinance earlier this year, has challenged the ordinance and has threatened to seek an injunction barring enforcement of the campaign contribution limit of $100 per candidate.
The ultimatum was delivered to the city in a Nov. 15 letter from O’Neill’s attorney, Bradley W. Hertz, in which he said his client believes the $100 limit “unconstitutionally restricts her ability to express her rights of speech and association.” Hertz said O’Neill plans to set up a political committee that would make expenditures in support of or in opposition to one or more candidates to the City Council.
The letter urged that the newly revamped ordinance is unconstitutional to the extent it applies to political action committees. Hertz warned a lawsuit will be filed unless the council repeals the contribution limit. He set a Dec. 3 deadline for the city’s response.
The ultimatum produced consternation from some at the council’s Nov. 18 meeting. “Ultimately, a court’s going to have to decide that,” said Interim City Attorney Richard Terzian. “It could go either way.” He vowed to defend the city ordinance in court if that should become necessary. In the meantime, any violation would be subject to prosecution, he said.
The threatened legal action by O’Neill caused an eruption at the council meeting, when Councilman Harry Barovsky raised questions about whether public funds were going to be used for political purposes.
The public funds Barovsky referred to were grants made by the city of Malibu to Cornucopia Farms, a nonprofit organization dedicated to organic farming and establishing a farmers market in Malibu.
O’Neill has been a prime mover in the creation of Cornucopia Farms and has appeared before the council many times on its behalf. The city of Malibu has made grants of money to Cornucopia Farms, $5,000 last year and $20,000 this year. It was reported the funds were used to create and equip an office for the organization, located in the garage at O’Neill’s Malibu home. The organization reportedly carpeted the garage, and bought a computer and a shredder, among other things. The current president of Cornucopia Farms, Debra Bianco, is an associate of O’Neill’s and worked with her on “Road Worriers,” a political action committee in the last election, as well as on the last Carolyn Van Horn political campaign, headed by O’Neill.
Neither Bianco nor O’Neill returned calls from The Malibu Times.
Denny Melle, secretary of Cornucopia, said in a phone interview it is a community-based organization. She said O’Neill has her own office and her own equipment, and Cornucopia is not a political organization.
At the council meeting, Barovsky called for an audit of public grant funds given by the city to Cornucopia Farms. O’Neill serves as a board member for the organization. “I’m very, very upset about this,” Barovsky declared, insisting only an audit would assure him these funds were not used for any political purpose. “Not one farthing!”
Councilman Walt Keller challenged the threat of retaliation. He said O’Neill has the right to pursue conduct on a personal basis without jeopardizing the interests of an organization on which she serves.
Councilman Tom Hasse said others are active in Cornucopia, as well. He expressed concern that one group not be singled out and suggested all grant recipients be audited. City officials set the number of such grants at six to eight yearly.
City Manager Harry Peacock relieved the impasse with a suggestion the recipient group seek reimbursement from the city by presenting its receipts and securing a check. Barovsky withdrew his motion, and the council informally agreed to revisit the matter in the future when Peacock submits a report.
Barovsky later said in a phone interview he was supportive of Cornucopia Farms and in fact had raised and given money to it, but, he added, “The city needs assurances that monies give to Cornucopia Farms, which were used to equip its offices, will not be used for political purposes. Certainly public monies cannot go to aid or attack candidates for public office.”