PROPOSED CAMPAIGN SPENDING LIMITS: GOOD PUBLIC POLICY OR A POLITICAL PLOY?
A couple weeks back the Monterey County Planning Commission narrowly approved plans for a 185-home subdivision to be known as Ferrini Ranch along Highway 68 between Monterey and Salinas. Opposition from environmentalists and neighbors focused on traffic congestion and the uncertain water supply. Wells in the area near Toro Park have been dropping steadily, and a county-imposed moratorium on development remains in place.
But not to worry, said one of the favorable planning commissioners, Jose Mendez. The water basin may be overdrafted already, but the county government’s Water Resources Agency hasn’t raised alarms about the water issue. Mendez said that if county officials say it’s OK, it must be OK.
If the water agency “won’t step up and say there’s no water, then there must be water,” said Mendez.
There is a real problem with Mendez’s logic, however. He seems to think that county officials are neutral arbiters, that they are there to protect the interests of everyone. He forgets that when it comes to major land-use decisions, concerned neighbors and others are at a huge disadvantage for one simple reason: Campaign contributions. Planning commissioners don’t receive contributions but county supervisors will make the final decision on Ferrini Ranch and they most definitely do.
While a supervisor would be unlikely to personally lobby a water resources employee to fudge in favor of a developer, a large bureaucracy such as county government presents any number of indirect routes for persuasive messaging.
The Ferrini Ranch project has been in the works in one form or the other for decades. The Kelton family of Southern California developed the Toro Park subdivision across Highway 68 from the hilly project site. The length of their wait will be cited by supporters as one reason the Board of Supervisors should approve the venture, something the supervisors will be inclined to do anyway. The years of waiting have provided the Keltons with plenty of opportunities to make financial contributions to the supervisors.
In one case, though, time worked against the Keltons. One of their favorite contribution recipients has been Supervisor Lou Calcagno, and he’s on his way out of office.
In June 2010, while Calcagno faced a primary election challenge from Ed Mitchell, a Kelton-owned company contributed $4,750 to the Calcagno campaign. Two days after Calcagno’s victory in that election, the Keltons’ builder, Ray Harrod, contributed $4,500 more, according to county election records.
Earlier, Mark, Richard and David Kelton each contributed $500 to Calcagno’s campaign.
Though that money might be considered wasted, the Keltons were undaunted. They surveyed the political landscape and kept writing checks to other board members and to the man who will replace Calcagno.
Like Calcagno did four years ago, retired Judge John Phillips defeated Mitchell in last week’s election and will represent the north county supervisorial district, District 2.
Though the Kelton’s project is in District 5, represented by Dave Potter, Phillips started getting Ferrini Ranch-related contributions in March, receiving $2,000 from Harrod and Harrod Construction. In May, Richard, Mark and David Kelton each contributed $350 to Phillips.
Because those contributions came in so close to the upcoming Board of Supervisors vote on the project, the Partisan emailed Phillips and his campaign manager, Plasha Will, to ask whether he would return the money. After four days, there had been no response.
The Keltons also care about representation in the other districts as well. Mark Kelton contributed $500 to District 1 Supervisor Fernando Armenta in April 2012. They were able to economize in Armenta’s case because the Salinas-based supervisor has never voted against a development project.
Early in 2010, when it appeared the Ferrini Ranch project was about to reach the supervisors, each of the three Keltons contributed $500 to District 3 Supervisor Simon Salinas, who has been nearly as pro-development as Armenta. Then, last year, David and Mark Kelton each contributed $250 to Salinas while Ray Harrod contributed $300.
They did not overlook Potter. After all, the project is in his district. The Keltons have made campaign contributions here for many years, since before they build the Toro Park subdivision, but records from before 2005 weren’t immediately available in the past week. The first available record of a payment to Potter was from October 2006 when David and Richard wrote checks for $250 and Mark coughed up $500.
Two years later, the trio gave those same amounts.
In April 2008 Potter received $500 from the David and Lenora Kelton Family Trust and $500 each from Richard and Mark Kelton. In 2011, the contributions amounted to $600 from each of the three Keltons.
Since 2006, the total obvious contributions from the Keltons amounted to $20,400, not a large amount by modern campaign standards but certainly enough to assure them of audiences with the supervisors. Most of those contributions were clearly reported as having come from the Keltons or Harrod but the $4,750 check to Calcagno in June 2010, during the primary campaign, was from a Kelton entity called Allied Farming.
One Ferrini opponent, who asked not to be named for fear of offending the supervisors, said, “Our main tool is getting large numbers out for the hearings but it’s really too late by then because the supervisors have made their decisions even before the checks have cleared the bank.”
With Supervisor Jane Parker unlikely to vote for a project with a questionable water supply and other issues, one logical scenario has the project winning approval on a 3-2 vote, with Potter able to vote with the minority so as not to ruffle feathers within his district. Another scenario makes Phillips a swing vote, putting the new supervisor to an early test.
Some of the supervisors did receive contributions from environmental interests and construction unions over the same stretch of time. Potter, for instance, received contributions from Mitchell in 2011 as well as Chris Fritz, who then headed the LandWatch organization. In 2013, Potter’s campaign opponent, Marc del Pierro, received substantial contributions from environmentalists, including more than $100,000 from an environmental trust established from the proceeds of a lawsuit aimed at preventing another major development project.
Contributions such as those to del Piero will help shape the upcoming discussion as the supervisors consider a new proposal to limit the size of contributions. Supervisors Potter and Salinas last week asked the county staff to prepare an ordinance that would mimic the limits set in state races, $4,100 from individual contributors and $8,200 from committees. County contributions here are essentially unlimited, and unlike some jurisdictions the county doesn’t bar supervisors from voting on matters affecting contributors.
Potter said he wants limits because special interests are becoming too important in county races. In the recent sheriff’s race, successful challenger Steve Bernal received at least $165,000 from a relative, helping him outspend incumbent Scott Miller more than 5 to 1.
While Potter will receive public interest points for the move, environmentalists are already questioning whether he is acting out of sincere concern for the process or merely trying to weaken potential campaign opponents. He is up for re-election in 2016 and Potter may be trying to ward off a repeat of the 2013 election when environmentalist money beefed up del Piero’s treasury.
The Monterey County Weekly speculated last week that potential Potter opponents include prosecutor Jimmy Panetta, Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett and United Way executive Mary Adams.