Civically Speaking is a weekly newsletter on the latest local government news from the lens of the Long Beach Post’s City Hall reporter, who sits through so many city meetings for us. Click here to subscribe.
A teachable moment in campaigning for public office
From our very first taste of democracy, we’re taught that we have the freedom to vote for the people whose ideas we think are the best. Should the student council president be the person who’s promising free soda in the vending machines or the one pledging to bring the best DJ to the winter formal?
Back when I was drinking soda, I’d probably vote for the person promising free Dr. Pepper.
I’m using a grade-school analogy here because this week we uncovered an issue with two races for the Long Beach Unified school board: Incumbents Doug Otto and Erik Miller tried to pass off LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker’s words as their own when they filled out candidate questionnaires for their reelection campaign.
As you might be aware, the Long Beach Post has had a “Compare Your Candidates” tool on our elections website for the past few elections, and the tool allows voters to see how candidates in certain races answered questions posed to them by our staff regarding policies and issues facing the city.
Otto and Miller’s original submissions to the Post were so similar that our editor in charge of CYC filed a public records request with the district to see if there was anything unusual that might have led to this. What we got back in return was pretty stunning.
An email from Miller to Baker’s office showed he passed along all five questions we sent him with a request for help filling them out. Otto, too, asked for her help. An email back to both candidates from Baker included answers to most of them.
“Hi Erik, I sent you the answers to the questions last night. You should connect with Doug because he asked and received the same answers from me,” Baker then said in a text to Miller.
“Your document looks great,” Otto said in a text to Baker, adding a thumbs-up emoji.
I talked to Baker about this, and she said she didn’t think she had done anything unusual because she felt she was just giving Otto and Miller the kind of information she’d normally provide to the school board, which she briefs on district activities.
But the questions posed to candidates didn’t have a right or wrong answer, and they weren’t about what the district is currently doing. They were questions about policy and what they thought could be changed.
How should the district handle declining enrollment? How should the district help students who were disproportionately harmed by pandemic-fueled learning loss? If elected, what policy change would you immediately advocate for?
To her credit, Baker didn’t answer that last question for the two candidates, but she did send answers to the others.
Otto admitted that he may have taken a shortcut when I reached out to him about this. Miller told me he was in the middle of a baby shower when I reached him Tuesday afternoon, then he never returned my calls or texts.
I talked to some political experts who agreed that they violated state law, which prohibits candidates from using public resources to benefit their campaigns.
If charges were brought against them, they could be asked to pay for the time used to answer the questions. And because Baker’s compensation is over $400,000 annually, that could be pricey depending on how quickly the responses were typed. But mostly, the experts were blown away by the laziness of the violation given that both candidates could’ve easily chosen not to participate or written anything they wanted off the top of their heads.
Using public resources for a political campaign is also not an obscure or technical issue. It’s a well-worn topic that there are safeguards against.
The city, for instance, has a host of rules in place that combine state and local prohibitions on what incumbents can do. For instance, an incumbent can’t appear on the city’s Long Beach TV network once they’ve signed papers to run for office.
They can’t use their City Hall staffers to work on their campaigns during city hall hours, although that’s a difficult thing to track and a complaint that I receive almost every election cycle. You also can’t use campaign-branded EZ-ups at city events or appear in public service announcements that give the appearance you’re speaking on behalf of the city.
While the city’s ordinance doesn’t apply to LBUSD offices, they are pretty standardized norms that all meet at the same point: If it’s funded by tax dollars, you’re probably not allowed to use it for your campaign.
So anyone out there thinking of running for office in the future, please do your own homework when filling out campaign material.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS WEEK:
The first two appeals over proposed parklets in the city will be heard by the City Council at its Feb. 13 meeting. Legends Sports Bar in Belmont Shore and Supply and Demand, a bar and music venue on Anaheim Street, are both seeking final approval for their outdoor dining extensions. The Legends application has been the more controversial of the two as residents in Belmont Shore have mobilized against similar proposals in the area due to the loss of parking that would accompany the outdoor dining parklets. That project has already been appealed to the Planning Commission but under the city’s new process for approving parklets, the City Council has the final say on whether businesses can build them if they’re facing public opposition.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT WEEK:
The city’s Ethics Commission, which has been working on proposed amendments to the lobbyist ordinance, appears to be ready to make a recommendation to the City Council. A draft of changes that could be sent to the council is scheduled to be voted on at the commission’s Feb. 14 meeting. The draft includes eight potential changes with some big shifts that could require city leaders to publish their calendars and require monthly reporting with additional disclosures such as reports or presentations given by lobbyists. One of the more controversial questions the commission has tried to balance is whether the exemption for nonprofits would continue. It appears it might, at least in part. The draft says that nonprofits with under $1 million in operating revenue would remain exempt but “advocacy” connected to land use, zoning, housing, tax proposals and the city budget will be required to be disclosed by qualifying groups.