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Sweeping the field 

New Times presents a voters' guide for the special-interest conscious

METHODOLOGY To determine who deserved the honor or dishonor of a spot in the rankings, our researchers hit the county highway. New Times raided committee finance documentation going back to 2002, examined in detail the often murky sources of campaign funding, polled local experts, and reviewed voting records in search of potential conflicts of interest. Then keeping a close eye on close elections and shading away from candidates with shady chances we organized a gamut and focused on the poles. From a field of 58 candidates and committees, five appeared especially on the level, and five more left an especially visible trail of doubt.

One November afternoon, in the ivory tower, I heard a windbag donning a blue sport coat complete with plaid elbow patches sermonize on a problem plaguing modern election language.

"In an attempt to liven up the election season," he bellowed with a canting grin, "the media often infuses sports terminology into its coverage. Trailing candidates become 'dark horses', a challenger looks to 'outflank' the incumbent, and fierce races transform into 'pitched battles.'"

Later that day, I strolled by a deserted polling place, occupied solely by a duo of white-haired volunteers. In a bar, one door over, a boisterous crew of football fans stood huddled around a glowing cathode, anxiously awaiting the updated AP poll after a big weekend on the college gridiron.

One of the volunteers, gauging my reaction, ambled over, pushed up her glasses, and said simply, "Is it any wonder special interests are taking over the country?"

That year's record-low turnout graced us with the present administration, along with most of the present legislature, after one of the filthiest elections seasons in recent memory. New campaign finance reform laws swiftly followed, which offered many of the research tools political snoops enjoy today.

In preparation for the upcoming election, two New Times staffers scoured the county, searching for special-interest skeletons in the closets of more than 50 area candidates and election committees. Politicos from all factions Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, pro-growth and anti-development fell under equal scrutiny.

To present the findings much to the dismay of that elbow-patched Jeffersonian ideologue this report employs one robust staple of sports punditry: the power rankings.

Vote with confidence

1. Mike Brennler Atascadero, City Council

Anyone keeping tabs on the goings-on above the grade probably knows Atascadero ain't quite right. In fact, some residents complained, when the municipal government moved out of its historic URM home following the San Simeon quake, it left its copy of the Brown Act behind. Oops.

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# This fall, three seats are open in an election that could change everything in the colony. The alleged corruption, the no-longer-alleged Wal-Mart, and the swirling chatter of backdoor dealing made by staff may soon become nothing more than a black piece of history, if former cop Mike Brennler gets his way.

Generally classified as a conservative, Brennler found a unique niche in the anti-Wal-Mart camp by decrying the red carpet laid by officials rather than the store itself. While fellow anti-Marter Ellen Beraud stacked a pile of contributions more than $20,000 high with large chunks from Atascaderans sporting an established agenda against the big-box proposal Brennler's bid remains more grass-roots-oriented.

Instead of hitting the campaign trail with a fistful of dollars, Brennler went out collecting endorsements from local politicians, law enforcement officers, and educators. Most impressively, state superintendent Jack O'Connell dropped in from on high to lend an upturned thumb.

Brennler collected just more than $3,000 in all. Financial support from teachers, cops, firefighters, and small labor unions filled most of his campaign roll call. New Times found no shades of Kelly Gearhart, the Rottman Group, Mission Oaks, or any other of the usual Atascaderan suspects behind any aspect of his candidacy.

"He's a straight shooter," councilman George Luna commented.


 

The merit badge is in the mail.

2. Christine Mulholland San Luis Obispo, Mayor

It's been a rough month for the SLO-growth movement. Between the threat of buildings rising and the Dalidio opposition falling or diving headfirst into a pit of special-interest muck, it's definitely getting more difficult to be self-righteous about parking lots.

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# On that note, little question ever existed where San Luis Obispo mayoral candidate Christine Mulholland stands in the heated debate over Dalidio Ranch, but, to her credit, she's kept safely out of the dirt.

When No on J began circulating questionable traffic statistics, Mulholland deferred to the issue of local control. When No on J manipulated statements by SLO-COG and the ag commissioner, Mulholland deferred to the issue of local control. While No on J assembled its bankroll, reportedly, with special interest funding behind the iron curtain of a mysterious LLC, Mulholland deferred to local and visible funding sources for her campaign.

In terms of campaign financing, both Mulholland and co-challenger John Ewan fell way below incumbent Dave Romero's $18,500, and each appeared fairly clean. Well-known environmentalists, educators, and public servants lent their financial support to both treasuries. However, Mulholland's campaign funding, uniquely, displayed not a trace of anti-Dalidio special interests impressive, considering her iconic stance on the topic. Whereas Ewan, more the wallflower on most growth issues, still took small amounts of money from the Copeland family, among others involved.

Between the three realistic candidates, only Romero accepted contributions from contractors and parties linked to development interests. He's also the only one not splitting a vote.

 

3. Victor Tognazzini U.S. Congressional District 23

Santa Barbara congressional incumbent Lois Capps is a fixture on the Central Coast much like white sand dunes, rolling seaside ranges, and tri-tip sandwiches. Taking the baton from her husband, late lawmaker Walter Capps, Lois has further advanced environmental advocacy during her eight-year run. But those times, they are a-changing, as the district appears to be slowly swaying red.

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# Most suspected a charismatic Republican would burst like a pro-life phoenix out of the ash-like regional hub of Santa Maria, backed by the kind of big special-interest money that made young lawmaker Kevin McCarthy a Central Valley superstar. No doubt, in an election where the fate of Congress means everything, nobody expected Victor Tognazzini.

Campaigning on farmers' interests, the challenger started by collecting his dough from the fields. Shockingly, he then shunned the typical special-interest seed money the big Sacramento 'pubs tend to sow on shifting congressional districts. As a result, Tognazzini found himself in a sort of fiscal Alamo. Capps summoned $622,000, while the cowboy from that blue-collar burg down south mustered just $18,500 mostly in small contributions from homeowners and agriculturalists.

PAC free.

"He is a man of high integrity," said Santa Barbara Farm Bureau executive director Teri Bontrager. "I feel very strongly he would represent the entire district very fairly."

Yessir, this boy is cleaner than a show hog out of wallar. Cleaner even. Now all he needs is some divine intervention. Camarillo Republican Beth Rodgers spent more than $1.7 million in a failed bid to unseat the popular Capps in 2002.

 

4. John Hamon Paso Robles, City Council

More so than any other city in San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles faces a very deliberate problem of how to deal with growth. Maintaining a functional infrastructure with a steady stream of new projects filling the planning channels frequently strains the city's resources. The growing conundrum of how to provide parking options for downtown seems especially daunting.

Developers often bring convenient solutions to these quandaries with a few catches attached.

The fact that developer Kelly Gearhart's name appears so much in this report and, indeed, in the pages of this newspaper comes as no coincidence. His money rarely pours forth idly, and there's always some Gearhart development brewing in one community or another.

"He doesn't even sit back and enjoy anything, there's always a new project," one North County insider explained.

When looking into a contentious upcoming race in Paso Robles, we looked where Gearhart and his business partners were not. No luck with mayoral candidate Fred Strong almost a third of his bankroll came from a $1,500 Gearhart contribution. The developer's wife and business lieutenant, Tamara, gave $1,000 to mayoral incumbent Frank Mecham. Almost every candidate for a council seat one penniless long-shot excluded exhibited faint, but lingering, shades of special interests.

John Hamon was the exception. Despite a background in the construction business, Hamon's connections appeared sparkling clean and his projects typically proved more sustainable than a lot of the "slash and pave" construction going down in Paso.

Due to the intimacy between policy outfall and policymakers in the planning commission realm, conflicts of interest sometimes appear very subtle, but are nonetheless significant. Hamon, a very active member of the Paso Robles commission, passed under New Times scrutiny without triggering any red flags.

Endorsements from respected community leaders like schools superintendent Patrick Sayne only sealed the deal.

 

5. Erik Howell Pismo Beach, Mayor

It's quite a theater they have over at Pismo City Hall sometimes you just wanna throw up a Bic and shout "encore." Not so much the case with Bill Rabenaldts' embarrassing chugalug antics on July 4, which unofficially marked his independence from the burdens of a legitimate candidacy.

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# Beleaguered residents frequently opine that the sitting council could benefit from a little shake-up, if for no other reason than to attain some civility. Many believe clean-cut Harvard-educated attorney Erik Howell by all accounts a complete about-face from the Pismo Beach norm could provide that turn of the crank. Whether or not that's true, Howell isn't playing around this election season.

Eyeing up against Realtor and incumbent Mary Ann Reiss, Howell collected a stunning $8,174 for his mayoral charge. Most itemized contributions to the challenger came from retirees, professionals, and local businessmen. Un-itemized contributions constitute gifts less than $100, and Howell received many, which also scored him points.

Additionally, several fellow school board members reached out to offer their support.

"Although a great loss to the school district, his candidacy for mayor represents a tremendous opportunity for the people of Pismo Beach," fellow board member Georgie O'Connor wrote following Howell's announcement to run. Various district educators echoed that sentiment.

Like his opponent, Howell appeared totally and utterly free of special-interest campaign financing. And nothing against Reiss, but these rankings are about highlighting the cleanest candidates in the county. Howell amassed quite the grassroots campaign without turning to the contractors, and for that, he made the cut.

 

Reason to doubt

1. Tom O'Malley Atascadero, City Council

"Five-hundred dollars, they paid for him to party," an exasperated Atascadero city official vented over an unusual contribution from the Rottman Group to current mayor Tom O'Malley. The Wal-Mart development firm apparently picked up the check for O'Malley's private room at a local vineyard on March 27, when talks to flag in the infamous superstore still "didn't exist."

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# It's rather funny really when O'Malley first ran for office, he sent back money offered by developers. This time around, Gustason Construction, the Rottman Group, Pembrook Builders, Michael Fredrick Paving, Ned Thompson of Filipponi and Thompson Drilling, Royce Construction, Dennis Moresco of Midland Pacific, and other confirmed development interests accounted for a cool $8,000 out of the just more than $12,000 the incumbent collected.


O'Malley even accepted a $500 contribution from Tarbell-Messer a real estate firm facing litigation from a group of ticked homeowners over a city-approved project.

On July 11, O'Malley participated in rejecting a bid on the youth center and then stepped out of the ring on Aug. 17 when the contract was actually awarded, due to a conflict of interest. He owned property within 500 feet of the center on both occasions.

These are merely the latest in a series of questionable actions by the council frontman, which include holding inappropriate ties to Wal-Mart developers.

As usual, O'Malley did not return phone calls.

Bizarrely enough, in New Times' initial sweep of the records, O'Malley came out relatively clean with just a few major developer contributions and hardly a scent of either Wal-Mart or Kelly Gearhart. This seemed an odd state of affairs considering widespread claims in Atascadero that O'Malley, Gearhart, and embroiled city manager Wade McKinney often saunter about thick as thieves.

But, as it turned out, since the incumbent received an early start on his fundraising, city staff kept a separate binder tucked away for contributions collected before the June 30 filing date. Clever.

 

2. County Coalition for Local Control (No on J) County Ballot Measure

As the hotly-contested Dalidio Ranch project approaches its day on the ballot, some downtown tenants claim that the fiscal backbone of the No on J campaign contains marrow of an ulterior motive.

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# Perhaps it's the loans granted to Dalidio opposition by members of the «opeland family owners of quite a bit of downtown property and the Downtown Association the last time the project went before voters. Perhaps it's the wonderment as to how the coalition plans to repay the more than $90,000 in loans given to it this time by a mysterious limited liability corporation. The financial cell named Responsible County Development LLC formed July 1.


Whatever the reason, many downtown businesses remain suspicious that the desire to keep rent prices artificially inflated provided the Dalidio opposition with its real propulsion.

"It is so strange that downtown property owners are so afraid of Dalidio," Copeland tenant Sean Fitzpatrick said.

It's difficult if not impossible to crack the LLC financial records to find out for sure if downtown business interests really are pulling the strings, but the committee itself could end some of the backtalk with a few simple disclosures. Yet, they won't.

A County Coalition spokesman bluffed to New Times that the committee would unveil the source of its LLC funding if the Yes on J camp did the same. Once informed that Dalidio complied with the disclosure request, No on J promptly reneged.

But, if staff decides eventually to open those files, perhaps it can also explain why the rent for its Copeland-owned Monterey Street office fails to appear in either the "payments made" or the "non-monetary contributions" sections of the campaign finance reports. In effect, the campaign may be getting free rent courtesy of an interested party.

Come to think of it, checking the documents from the last campaign when the matter went before municipal voters we couldn't locate rent payments registered by that committee either.

When approached regarding the apparent inability to account for its overhead expenses, campaign staff declined to specifically comment. Phone calls to Copeland Properties were not returned.

 

3. Jeff Edwards Los Osos CSD, Director

Enforcement of fair election legislation, which mandates the periodic disclosure of campaign financing, generally peters off at the lower levels of service-based representation. It's just a fact of life.

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# Consequently, voters in the turbulent Los Osos Community Services District didn't learn that members of the former board actually contributed to the campaign against their recall until the election became history.

This fall, it appears like more of the same Osos with a new twist, as one of the centerpieces of local corruption-based conspiracy theory has entered the ring himself.

Pushing around a revolutionary new wastewater solution, developer Jeff Edwards is banking on the failure of county public works' ability to handle the project so he can pursue his designs. Yet, Los Osos insiders suspect the developer could stand to profit from another turn in the serpentine sewer saga. Why? Many say it's happened before.

As a middleman of sorts, Edwards, according to board members, made money off both Tri-W and Broderson two properties purchased by the CSD to potentially house sewage systems. Edwards admitted to serving as the listing agent on Broderson but denied any involvement in the purchase of Tri-W. CSD staff, as of publication, has one week to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for documents pertaining to the purchase of that property.

Also, board president Lisa Schicker claimed that Director Julie Tacker unsuccessfully lobbied the CSD immediately after the recall to consider a property known as Gorby as another alternative sewer plant location. Tacker later admitted working for Edwards.

Now that Edwards is eyeing a seat of his own, he's got his finger on Gorby to house the treatment facility. Unsurprisingly, rumors frequently abounded that he again holds an option on the candidate property.

Edwards said he previously expressed interest in the property, but the owner, Mike Gorby, indicated no intention to sell the property through the candidate or anyone else.

 

4. Sam Blakeslee California Assembly District 33

In the bizarre code of campaign finance reports, one will find a space-saving acronym for every possible source of money. SCK, for example, marks funding found under the couch while searching for car keys. Slightly less imaginary but almost as rare is the symbol CVC, which represents a civic donation to an established nonprofit.

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# On July 17, Republican Sam Blakeslee's campaign gifted $6,600 to the local arm of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a charitable organization providing legal services to protect abused children.

That's good.

However, the $6,600 came to the campaign by way of Tim and Mary Barnard of Bozeman, Mont., owners of a firm contracted to help build the Los Osos sewer project, the one derailed by the post-recall CSD. The pair of maximum allowable contributions ($3,300) arrived with Barnard's litigation against the CSD still on the table, during the spring funding freeze, and three months before Blakeslee presented state legislation shifting management of the project.

That's bad.

New Times caught wind of the contribution days before the donation was made to CASA. Blakeslee responded that they initially declined the contribution when the sewer debate stalled and, when Barnard offered again, the campaign accepted and subsequently forgot about it. When AB-2701 moved onto the assembly floor, the money remained in the coffers.

Basically running against his own shadow this election season, Blakeslee seems to have restricted his campaign's income sources to easily-traceable PACs and corporations, rather than potentially-ambiguous citizens.

And that's one way to do it.

 

5. Robert "Grigger" Jones Atascadero City Council

Rumors of conflict surrounding City Council challenger and lawyer Grigger Jones literally predate his candidacy.

In a 2005 city document, leaked in early August, attorney Dennis Law described "highly inappropriate" actions, where Jones purportedly pressured a landowner to sell his property to the Rottman Group. Lot owner Bob Kelly not the city planning commissioner/City Council candidate of a similar name earlier halted talks with the firm because he disliked the manner of the negotiations.

Kelly then reported that he received a letter from the Rottman Group informing him of their plans to build an elevated pad next door that would restrict access to his property.

"Mr. Jones informed me that he was, in fact, retained by the Rottman Group," Law wrote.

In a more recent incident, city staff hurled accusations last week that developer Kelly Gearhart recruited Jones and co-candidate Bob Kelley to pressure planners to approve amendments to a 12-unit project in Atascadero.

Community Development Deputy Director Steve McHarris wrote in an e-mail that Jones and Kelley coerced his staff to "not only support Gearhart's request, but waive Planning Commission authority over the change."

Jones did not publicly address the indictments of ethical misconduct, but later responded that McHarris made a "conclusionary statement" in the controversial e-mail. The embattled candidate went on to explain that he only witnessed a disagreement between McHarris and Gearheart, in which he took no part.

Employees stated the degree to which Gearhart and the two candidates allegedly requested alterations to the project superceded what city code allowed.

RESEARCHED BY PATRICK M. KLEMZ AND KAREN VELIE, WRITTEN BY PATRICK M. KLEMZ

Contact Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

 

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