By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The failure of three Santa Rosa City Council candidates to disclose that they were sharing expenses during the 2010 campaign violated state law, the state’s campaign finance watchdog has concluded.
Santa Rosa city council members Scott Bartley and Jake Ours and unsuccessful council candidate Juan Hernandez received warning letters recently but no fines from the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which investigated the matter.
The commission concluded that the pro-business threesome, whose names and faces appeared together on signs, mailers and advertisements throughout the campaign, “failed to properly disclose the apportioned costs” of the campaign materials.
However, the commission noted that because the men had agreed to share expenses during the campaign, amended their filings once they became aware of the problem, and repaid some of the debts, the commission decided to close the case without fines.
“I’m glad that it’s been recognized that we didn’t do anything other than report it incorrectly,” Bartley said.
Bartley, an architect, former planning commissioner and Santa Rosa native, raised significantly more money than Ours and Hernandez during the campaign. He at times paid bills for expenses covering all three candidates, such as a $9,805 check for a joint campaign mailer and $6,526 for a campaign advertisement.
He reported paying those expenses, but didn’t report that Ours and Hernandez owed his campaign for their share of those expenses. Ours made a similar error when he paid a $3,852 to a local printing company for the cost of a mailer.
“It got confusing,” Ours said of the campaign filings, which he said he prepared himself. “We thought we did it right. Then we found out we didn’t do it right.”
Attorney Richard Meechan, chairman of the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County, filed a series of campaign finance complaints over the 2010 election. All but the latest one have been dismissed by either the FPPC or the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, which was asked to investigate alleged violation of local campaign finance ordinances. Meechan did not respond to a call for comment.
He has previously said the complaints were an effort to highlight the way political consultant Herb Williams runs election campaigns. Williams, 75, has advised political candidates in Sonoma County for 20 years. He also is a registered lobbyist, which critics claim raises questions about the influence he wields.
Williams managed the campaigns of Bartley, Ours and Hernandez, and all agreed that because money was tight they would share expenses, he said. The plan was for each candidate to pay for similar campaign expenses as they came due and they would “balance it out at the end,” he said.
“Our mistake was not billing the individual candidates on the front end,” Williams said. “It was never the intent of the candidates to not properly disclose, which has been recognized by the FPPC by the closure of this matter.”
The parity didn’t work out as planned, however. Donations to Hernandez dropping off sharply after the Press Democrat reported that he was in the midst of his second bankruptcy, undercutting his claims of being a successful businessman.
Hernandez, owner of a local computer services firm, remains in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and his campaign is still $13,000 in debt. He said he plans to raise the money necessary to repay those debts. He said he was pleased with the resolution of the complaint “because there was never any intent to mislead anything.”
Councilwoman Susan Gorin, who successfully ran for reelection against the three candidates in 2010, said she was disappointed the case was resolved with just a warning because “the lack of transparency to the voters was quite blatant.”
Gorin noted that Williams is “an experienced campaign consultant” and the treasurers for all three campaigns were also current or former Williams candidates (Mayor Ernesto Olivares for Hernandez, Jane Bender for Bartley, and Janet Condron for Ours).
“Clearly someone should have known the FPPC reporting requirements,” Gorin said.
Williams said he bears some of the responsibility for the errors and plans to hire professional help for future campaigns to ensure nothing similar happens again.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.