By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The state’s campaign finance watchdog has opened an investigation into allegations that three Santa Rosa City Council candidates improperly shared expenses during last fall’s campaign.
Scott Bartley, Jake Ours and Juan Hernandez all received letters from the enforcement division of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission explaining that it had opened a formal investigation into a complaint filed last month by local attorney Richard Meechan.
Herb Williams, a Santa Rosa lobbyist and campaign consultant for all three candidates, confirmed his clients had received copies of the letter last week. He said they had hired an attorney and would have no comment until the investigation is complete.
Meechan, co-chairman of the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County, said he had not yet received a copy of the letter, but was pleased to hear of the decision.
“It does tell us that they think there’s something there,” Meechan said. “It sure smells like smoke.”
A prior complaint Meechan filed over the election was dismissed. That one alleged a public safety managers’ union and a political action committee delayed disclosure of donations until after the election.
Meechan’s latest complaint claimed that the three candidates, two of whom (Bartley and Ours) were elected, violated campaign spending rules by sharing expenses equally without raising money equally.
He argued that Bartley, who received the most contributions of the three, carried his runningmates by spending money on promotions for all three of them. Meechan claimed those expenses were effectively undisclosed in-kind contributions that violated state campaign finance disclosure requirements, as well as local rules limiting contributions to $500 per person.
He said his issue was less with the individual candidates than with their campaign manager, Williams. “If it was manipulation, then it was his manipulation, I believe,” Meechan said.
Williams noted the March 8 letter expressly stated the opening of an investigation in no way suggests anyone did anything wrong.
The letter to Meechan reads in part that “we have not made any determination about the validity of the allegation you have made nor about the culpability, if any, of the person you identified in your complaint.”
City Attorney Caroline Fowler explained that anyone found violating the city ordinance can be fined three times the amount given exceeding $500, or $2,500 per violation, whichever is greater.
Her office had received a complaint similar to the one filed with the FPPC, she said. Because it involves two sitting council members, however, she plans to forward it to the county district attorney for investigation, she said.