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FPPC Official Calls for Tighter Rules on Mass Mailings

August 28, 1996|PAUL JACOBS and VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — The chairman of the watchdog Fair Political Practices Commission on Tuesday called for tough new restrictions on mass mailings by elected officials at public expense.

Although such mass mailings were banned in plain language by a 1988 initiative, lawmakers and other public officials have been using commission-approved exceptions to send out a large volume of mail, said FPPC Chairman Ravi Mehta.

"It seems we have this little rubber band that has been stretched and stretched over the years and it seems it's going to snap," he said in an interview.

Mehta issued his call for reform following a Times story on Tuesday showing that lawmakers have taken advantage of loopholes to mail over 35 million pieces at a cost of almost $6 million since the initiative was passed. The story also pointed out that the volume of mail has been rising in the Assembly this session, as many members of the new Republican majority have been flooding their constituents with mail.

Over the past 21 months, records show, the GOP members have sent out more than 10 million pieces of mail--six times the number sent by Assembly Democrats. Some of the mail appears highly political in content, prompting critics to complain that it is intended to help incumbents as they seek office in this year's elections.

Mehta said the volume of mail cited in the story--more than 600,000 pieces by some Assembly members this session--appeared excessive.

But Mehta said he was awaiting recommendations from the commission's legal staff on how the agency might restrict the type and volume of this mail. He said these might include a series of specific prohibitions.

"The question is how long is that laundry list [of prohibitions] going to be, and can we think of everything," he said, noting the ingenuity of officials in legally avoiding the mass mailing ban.

Proposition 73, the 1988 initiative, simply states: "No newsletter or other mass mailing shall be sent at public expense."

Mehta, who was appointed chairman by Gov. Pete Wilson in January 1995, said he has long been concerned about the volume and content of the mailers sent by lawmakers.

The aim of voters was not to cut off all communication with elected officials, Mehta said. But he said exceptions made by the FPPC to permit the mailing of tax refund checks, public meeting notices and community college class schedules sometimes have been utilized for self-serving mailings.

"The intent has been stretched to the point of absurdity," Mehta said. The rules should "definitely be tightened up. I don't think the voters intended this to happen."

Mehta praised Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) for winning approval this month of a rule that will bar Assembly members from sending out these mailers in the 45 days leading up to the November election. The Senate has long had a 90-day ban.

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