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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

El Toro Casualty: Local Elections

April 28, 2002|SHIRLEY L. GRINDLE | Shirley Grindle is a longtime community activist.

When developer George Argyros fired the first shot over the bow by successfully getting an uninformed and unsuspecting public to vote for an international airport at El Toro, who would have predicted that eight years and $54 million later, the county would be no closer to building an airport than it was before the Marines left El Toro?

The battle over the airport went beyond the Board of Supervisors. It generated tactics that test the limits of campaign spending rules on both sides. The drive to turn El Toro into an airport without a doubt severely damaged the public's confidence in county government, and it increasingly has undermined the integrity of our local elections.

I view this impact on local elections with concern.

This was first detected in Irvine's November 2000 elections for mayor and three council seats. A couple of individuals active in Irvine politics formed a slate mailer organization called Hometown Voter Guide.

By labeling their efforts as a slate mailer organization, the group was able to collect contributions from a number of anti-airport sources far in excess of Irvine's regular limit of $310 per person. With these funds, Hometown produced more than a dozen slate mailers that promoted Larry Agran for mayor and Agran's endorsed candidates for City Council--Beth Krom, Chris Mears and Anthony Dragun.

State law could have been violated because the state Political Reform Act clearly prohibits a candidate or officeholder from being involved in the operation of a slate mailer organization. I've asked the Fair Political Practices Commission to look into the matter and determine whether any candidates were involved.

In June 2001, the Airport Working Group, a pro-airport political action committee supported mostly by Newport Beach residents, paid for a series of campaign mailers in an Orange City Council election. These mailers promoted the election of certain pro-airport candidates and opposed those who were neutral or anti-airport. In so doing they and some of their large contributors allegedly ran afoul of Orange's campaign finance ordinance. The city of Orange filed charges, and the matter is now in court.

These events in Irvine and Orange pale by comparison, however, to what recently occurred in the election for the 3rd District supervisor's seat, where anti-airport candidate Chris Norby ran against pro-airport incumbent Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad. What happened was a joining of anti-airport forces in South County with anti-airport candidate Norby's campaign people along with a slate mailer organization known as the Voter Education Project. Concerned that Norby would not be able to raise enough money to overcome the advantage of wealthy incumbent Coad, anti-airport organizations gave substantial funds not to Norby directly but to the Voter Education Project, which then produced and mailed more than a dozen mailers that supported Norby and opposed Coad.

Since contributions to slate mailer organizations are not subject to contribution limits, Norby's campaign was able to bypass the county's campaign limit of $1,000 per person and simultaneously receive the benefit of more than a dozen pieces of campaign literature paid for by someone else.

A legitimate slate mailer usually consists of a list of candidates and ballot measures recommended by the organization itself. But the Voter Education Project mailers consisted of four-page, full-color glossy foldouts with 31/2 pages devoted to pro-Norby rhetoric and only a small portion of the back page used for naming other slate candidates and ballot measures. In fact, these mailers looked exactly like campaign literature that would normally be sent out by the candidate himself.

According to state law, a slate mailer is defined simply as "a mass mailing which supports or opposes a total of four or more candidates or ballot measures." By adding at least three other names on the back page, the mailers met the legal definition.

Efforts are underway to analyze the legal ramifications of the Norby campaign. But the full picture won't be known until the next campaign disclosure reports are filed (due by the end of July), which will provide details as to who paid for what and when.

In the meantime, now that the El Toro issue appears to be resolved with the county finally acknowledging the futility of trying to build an international airport in the center of developed communities, perhaps city and county elections will no longer be impacted by campaign tactics emanating from both sides of the airport controversy. Let us hope this will be the case.

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