Take the city of Monterey, for instance, where a reform-minded city councilwoman, Libby Downey, was knocked out of office in November by an opponent who raised nearly six times as much money, much of it from a segment of the business community that Downey had tangled with.
The successful candidate was Dan Albert Jr., son of the longtime Monterey mayor. In a three-candidate race for two seats on the council, he pulled in $53,365 compared to $9,411 for Downey and $8,549 for Alan Haffa, who retained his seat.
Downey and Haffa have led the city’s efforts to reform leasing practices at city-owned Fisherman’s Wharf, where some longtime tenants who negotiated sweetheart lease deals with the city decades ago are allowed to sublease the space to other businesses at greatly increased rates without the city receiving any share of the additional income.
The effort to change that and other practices has been met with furious resistance from wharf tenants, who have repeatedly accused city officials of attempting to turn the wharf over to chain restaurants at the expense of local, family-owned operations. With Downey’s departure, the city has softened its approach to negotiating more taxpayer-friendly leases at the wharf. The city’s resolve weakened further when Councilman Timothy Barrett, previously in the Haffa-Downey camp on the issue, was somehow persuaded to switch sides. Haffa is now expected to be outvoted 4-1 on wharf matters, so the established wharf interests appear to have regained their grip on city leasing policy.
Albert’s contributors listed in the most recent campaign spending reports include the Monterey Commercial Property Owners Association, $2,500; and two closely related entities, the Monterey Bay Action Committee and the Monterey Hospitality Association, $5,000 apiece. The $5,000 contributions came after the election and were presumably intended to help Albert build his treasury for a re-election effort. He also took in contributions from Monterey Fish Co., Randy’s Fishing Trips, the Cannery Row Co., Portola Hotel, Marriott Hotel and lawyer Tony Lombardo, who represents the Shake family interests on the wharf.
Incidentally, or not, in his previous role as associate superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, Albert was an active participant in the pay-to-play system of awarding school bond contracts to companies that provide most of the financing for school bond measure campaigns.
The Monterey district was not alone, of course. School districts throughout California and beyond traditionally financed bond campaigns with contributions from bond underwriters and construction companies that would directly benefit from the resulting school construction contracts. In California, the state Treasurer’s Office only last year enacted regulations that prohibit contracts from being awarded to the firms that financed the corresponding bond measures. Bonding companies can still contribute to bond measure campaigns but they cannot then recover their investment directly by receiving contracts in the same communities.
No one has accused Albert of any illegal or unethical activities. The connection between school bond campaign financing and subsequent contracts has been so clear for so long that the built-in conflicts of interests were widely viewed as a necessary cost of getting schools built or repaired.
While Albert was the local school district’s chief business officer, his wife, Sharon, ran the successful Measure P campaign that raised more than $100 million in 2010, and she received considerable and justifiable praise for her efforts. With district officials barred from direct involvement in bond campaigns, companies that went on to receive sizable construction or finance contracts contributed the bulk of the money needed to persuade voters to approve the MPUSD bond program. A sizable share of the resulting construction work went to campaign contributor Harris Construction of Fresno, now under investigation for a bid-rigging scheme in Fresno. Others contributing to Measure P and then benefiting from the construction program included the Piper Jaffray and Stone & Youngberg bond firms, Keygent Advisers, a San Francisco bond counsel and a Fresno architecture firm.
Efforts to limit campaign contributions locally have surfaced from time to time but most have sputtered as local political action committees such as the Monterey Bay Action Committee and the Salinas Valley Leadership Group have stepped up to support the most commerce-friendly candidates. At the moment, however, momentum appears to be growing for new, tougher rules that would affect candidates for the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.