Claremont in hot water over bond measure mailer
What was intended as an informational mailer on Measure W may have put the city of Claremont in hot water after attracting the attention of a Claremont homeowners political action committee sponsored by Golden State Water.
“Stop the Water Tax—No on W,” previously referred to as “Stop the $135 Million Takeover,” has issued a cease and desist demand against the city, claiming that a mailer sent to Claremont voters earlier this month is advocacy-oriented and violates the laws against using public funds for campaign materials.
Attorney Thomas Hiltachk, treasurer of the committee and managing partner at Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk LLP—the same law firm that filed suit over the city council’s ballot argument—alleges that City Manager Tony Ramos authorized, and illegally expended, taxpayer dollars to send a “campaign mailer” on Measure W to residents.
Coupled with the threat of a personal lawsuit against Mr. Ramos and other city staff responsible for the mailer, the letter demands that “the city shall not engage in and expend any additional taxpayer funds campaigning for Measure W” and that Mr. Ramos “personally reimburse the city for the cost of the illegal mailing as required by law.”
The letter also claims Mr. Ramos and the city failed to comply with campaign reporting law by not reporting the “illegal expenditure,” stating that the expense should have been disclosed within 24 hours pursuant to the Political Reform Act.
Donna Lowe, founding member of CAWA and spokesperson for Stop the Water Tax—Vote No on W, received an email from a Claremont resident referring to the mailer as “propaganda” and isn’t surprised by the allegations against the city.
“Jay Pocock, Mark Sterba and I were on a conference call and Jay mentioned he thought the mailer was unlawful. We talked to Randle Communications about it and we were all in agreement,” says Ms. Lowe. “If the city is going to put a zinger out there, what we can do is ensure the petition isn’t wasting our money and that they are adhering to campaign laws.”
The allegations put forth in the five-page letter from Mr. Hiltachk were initially discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting, with City Attorney Sonia Carvalho addressing the matter and working to debunk any wrongdoing.
“Mr. Hiltachk alleges that the city’s communication is a campaign piece because it was prepared, designed and distributed by a special campaign consultant,” Ms. Carvalho stated. “He says that the communication was based on voter research, it looks like a campaign mailer and that it is one-sided. He is simply wrong.”
As the COURIER previously reported, the Claremont City Council unanimously approved the use of $176,000 from the city’s general fund to hire Fiona Hutton & Associates to assist with public outreach as it pertains to the water system acquisition. The independent firm has worked on several ballot initiative campaigns and specializes in complex policy issues and public education.
“Our consultant, Fiona Hutton, is highly regarded and experienced in advising public agencies on informational materials,” Ms. Carvalho said. “She and our law firm clearly know the difference between an information piece and political advocacy.”
Ms. Hutton addressed city council and staff on July 8, reiterating her firm’s role and responsibility in adhering to the guidelines put forth by the Fair Political Practices Commission.
“We are well aware, particularly on this issue, that we have many eyes on us,” she said. “We have been very, very careful in advising council and our staff on where that line is between information and advocacy. We’re well aware of it, we’re mindful of it and we will not cross that line.”
Ms. Carvalho assured council members that the city has complied with campaign laws and communicated in a fact-based, unbiased manner regarding the ballot measure.
“The city’s materials convey past and present facts, including how and why water service has become so important to the city’s residents; the communication is not argumentative and does not encourage a vote in support or against Measure W.”
Ms. Lowe disagrees.
“The city was campaigning for votes; the language about rates skyrocketing, cities owning their own water and local control. The city has walked a fine line on this from the beginning. Unless you’re really paying attention, you’ll get railroaded.”
One thing is clear for Ms. Lowe, the November water bond measure will not get her vote.
“This is my home, that’s what pisses me off about all of it,” says Ms. Lowe. “What the city is asking for with this bond measure is a lifetime of debt. I don’t like debt. If we can’t afford to pay cash for it at my house, we don’t get it. I expect my city, my government and my nation to do the same.”
Mr. Hiltachk submitted a Public Records Request for all writings between city staff and Hutton & Associates relating to the water bond mailer, research referenced in Hutton’s contract and any other contract between the city and the vendor regarding Measure W.
According to Ms. Carvalho, city staff will continue to move forward with the goal of educating and informing Claremont residents on the facts and their choices in November, despite the allegations against the city.
A formal response to the cease and desist demand and Public Records Act request will be prepared by the city. The COURIER will continue to provide those details as they become available.