By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
An independent political committee funded by Codding Enterprises, one of Sonoma County’s most prominent developers, played a dominant role in Rohnert Park’s City Council election last year, campaign finance reports show.
The Protect Rohnert Park committee spent $62,309, nearly as much as the $70,567 spent by all six candidates together. In the campaign season’s final two weeks, it more than doubled the combined spending of all the candidates and competing committees.
“The contributions we made . . . were in the best interest of Rohnert Park,” said Kirstie Moore, Codding Enterprises’ development manager. “We think that the City Council as elected has the ability to lead Rohnert Park back to financial stability. That’s really the bottom line.”
The company is based in Rohnert Park and has major property holdings there. It is developing Sonoma Mountain Village, a $1 billion multi-use project on the city’s south edge.
The committee’s spending surprised all the candidates. “Whoa,” said Pam Stafford, an incumbent and former mayor whom the committee backed, upon hearing the figure.
Not surprisingly, it rankled those targeted by the committee.
“I think they hijacked the election,” said John Borba, whom the committee opposed. He spent $18,859 and finished a close third in the race for two seats, behind Stafford and Amy Ahanotu.
The committee, which plastered the city with signs for Stafford and Ahanotu, aimed most of its critical direct mailers at controversial former city manager Carl Leivo.
But in an election with 20,321 votes cast, Borba finished just 314 shy of victory and likely suffered by association. Each flier attacking Leivo noted that the committee also opposed Borba, and at least one referred to him as Leivo’s running mate.
Asked why the committee targeted Borba — who, like Stafford and Ahanotu and unlike Leivo had expressed support for Sonoma Mountain Village — Moore said: “It was always our impression that John Borba was running on a slate with Carl Leivo, whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know.”
As a whole, independent political committees had an outsized role in the election, the city’s second most expensive after a 2004 recall contest, which cost $207,000.
Including the Protect Rohnert Park group, three committees spent $94,875 through the fall of 2010, more than half the $165,446 in total spending.
That level of involvement is not new, said political consultant Brian Sobel, who was not involved in the Rohnert Park election. It’s just more visible than in the past, when there were fewer regulations governing independent committees and their activities, he said.
“Rohnert Park’s always been very active with respect to campaigns; people are willing to spend money,” Sobel said. “There have always been quiet committees, consortiums of people who had an interest in the outcome.”
Two of the three committees in the 2010 Rohnert Park race opposed Stafford or supported Borba and Leivo, whom the council dismissed in 2005. Leivo led all candidates in individual spending but finished fourth by a significant margin.
The city’s public safety officers union, always a major player but luckless in this election, spent $23,469 on fliers and signs supporting Borba and Leivo.
A committee named Citizens for Change, formed to oppose Stafford, spent $9,101 on at least four fliers slamming her for her decisions as a councilwoman.
Stafford questioned that figure, saying, “I don’t know how they could have done it with that little money; they got the best bargains in the world if they did it for that little.”
She said that as the target of that committee, which charged her with using city funds irresponsibly, she found the Protect Rohnert Park committee’s spending on her behalf startling but not excessive.
“I’ve never had anybody do anything like that for my benefit before — it’s surprising that it cost that much, I can’t say I’m troubled.”
Her campaign expenditures were $15,763.
Leivo, who spent $22,958, was the bullseye for the Protect Rohnert Park attacks. A series of fliers — one of which likened him to lightning-rod Republican political operative Karl Rove and said his ambition was to control the city — painted him as dangerous to the city.
He declined to comment on the issue the impact of Protect Rohnert Park committee efforts.
Ahanotu, who came in second by 341 votes over Borba, spent $8,239 on his campaign. He discounted the effect on the race or his candidacy of the Protect Rohnert Park spending.
“You can spend $3 million and not win a campaign,” Ahanotu said.
“The campaign was won or lost based on the ideas that the candidates brought to the discussion,” he said. “And if you ask anyone in Rohnert Park, I was knocking on doors every night. My wife was knocking on doors.”
Former Rohnert Park police officer Roger Schwanke, who finished sixth, spent $4,748. Former city fire commander Jack Rosevear, who came in fifth, did not file a campaign finance report.