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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Hiring of Campaign Finance Monitor Is Urged

September 22, 2000|JENIFER RAGLAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — Councilman Mike Markey wants the city to hire an independent attorney to investigate and prosecute any violations of its strict campaign finance laws, enacted two years ago following a bitter and expensive recall effort.

Markey, one of seven candidates vying for two City Council seats in November, plans to ask his council colleagues Tuesday to spend up to $10,000 to hire an attorney to handle any complaints from residents on potential finance violations during the election season.

His political rivals had mixed views on the proposal. While some applauded it, others said a better idea would be to set up a citizen-staffed ethics committee to monitor both campaign spending and elected officials' conduct once they are in office.

"I think it's a great idea," said candidate Ed Masry, the millionaire attorney made famous by the Julia Roberts movie "Erin Brockovich." "And I think we should also look at how people are voting after they got the [campaign] money."

Planning Commissioner Jim Bruno, another council contender, said he has long pushed for a mechanism to enforce the city law, including forming an ethics commission or hiring a judge pro tem--ideas rejected by the council.

"It's kind of amusing that one of them is bringing it back up when they voted against it last time," said Bruno, who chaired a committee that crafted the city's campaign finance reforms.

But Markey said his suggestion--which comes after questions were raised on contributions he received in earlier campaigns--is a cheaper and more efficient way to enforce the campaign finance law than employing a full-time ethics commission such as in Los Angeles.

"We've had people come down to the City Council making accusations about myself and other colleagues about past campaign statements," Markey said. "The best way to curtail the misinformation is for outside counsel to do it."

The city, known for its heated and sometimes divisive elections, passed campaign finance reforms in July 1998 limiting each donor to contributions of $250, and restricting the number of $250 donations to the number of seats being contested.

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The reforms came after Jill Lederer, owner of a local Domino's Pizza franchise, spent about $400,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to oust then-Councilwoman Elois Zeanah from office in 1997, one year before her term expired. The entire battle topped $500,000--more than anyone had ever spent on a Thousand Oaks council election.

City Atty. Mark Sellers said it would be a conflict of interest for him to investigate potential campaign finance violations against his elected bosses or any of their political challengers.

Individual citizens can ask the Ventura County district attorney's office to investigate or file civil actions against candidates, but there was no mechanism for city enforcement included in the law, Sellers said. He added that the Fair Political Practices Commission would enforce violations of state campaign law, but not of a local ordinance.

The independent attorney proposed by Markey would receive complaints from citizens and decide what is worthy of investigation and prosecution, Sellers said. This election monitor would have the same authority as a city attorney in filing civil and criminal claims.

Hiring special prosecutors is something normally reserved for the federal government, but a handful of cities have done it, said Craig Holman, project director for campaign finance ethics at the Center for Governmental Studies, a private think-tank based in Los Angeles.

Holman, however, said he has never heard of a city hiring a special attorney to be on call to investigate complaints from residents during an election.

"The best way to handle it is to set up an ethics board--it's a more efficient way to enforce campaign finance laws," Holman said. "If anybody needs an ethics commission, Thousand Oaks would be a very good candidate."

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The always contentious issue of finances in Thousand Oaks elections is particularly hot this year because of Masry's candidacy. The Westlake Village attorney already has pledged to spend as much of his own money as it takes to win one of the two council seats.

Markey said he was concerned that Masry could subsidize Councilwoman Linda Parks' campaign because they are running on a slate, hoping to be elected together as slow-growth proponents who say they will fight giving special favors to developers.

"I have concerns any time slates are being run because of co-mingling of funds," Markey said.

Both Masry and Parks deny any impropriety in their campaigns and say their individual campaign finance reports--to be filed by Oct. 5--will prove they have split any shared costs, such as for mailers and campaign functions.

"Markey ought to worry more about his election and his funding instead of worrying about mine," Masry said.

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