By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Who funded a last-minute robo-call slamming Santa Rosa City Councilman Gary Wysocky?
Two weeks after the election, the person or group behind the calls remains a mystery.
That’s because the name of the group that said it paid for the calls, the “Anybody But Wysocky Committee,” hasn’t filed any documentation required under state or city campaign finance laws.
The episode is the latest example of how the increasing use of automated telephone calls in local political races is creating opportunities for negative messages to be disseminated cheaply, anonymously and perhaps in violation of existing campaign finance laws.
“I think it actually does make a difference and the public deserves to know who is generating those calls,” said Stephen Gale, head of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.
State law requires independent expenditure committees raising $1,000 or more for local races to report their donors and activities and to the Santa Rosa City Clerk. City campaign finance laws are even stricter, requiring any committee spending more than $500 to file detailed reports with the clerk, in some cases within 24 hours of the expenditure.
The laws are designed to combat corruption by ensuring transparency in the political process. But Santa Rosa City Clerk Terri Griffin says her office has received no such disclosures from an “Anybody But Wysocky Committee.”
That tells Wysocky, who came in fourth and will retain his City Council seat, that whoever paid for the calls not only wanted to hurt him politically, but sought to do so anonymously.
“Someone is violating the law,” Wysocky said this week.
The situation is reminiscent of the recent calls against Cotati-Rohnert Park school board member Karyn Pulley.
Veteran Santa Rosa political consultant Herb Williams arranged those calls for a client known only as Parents for Better Schools. Because they cost less than $1,000, Williams said his client has no obligation to report their identity or donors.
Williams was actively involved in using robo-calls in the Santa Rosa City Council race, including calls made for his client Mayor Ernesto Olivares, who came in first in the race for four open seats, and restaurateur Don Taylor, who finished fifth.
But Williams said he wasn’t involved in the Anybody But Wysocky Committee calls and has no idea who was. Taylor’s political consultant, Rob Muelrath, and Nick Caston, the husband and political consultant for third-place finisher Erin Carlstrom, both said the same thing.
Caston said polls showed Carlstrom “solidly in the top four,” so it would make no sense for her to attack Wysocky, with whom she agrees on many issues. The 29-year-old attorney received 296 votes more than Wysocky.
“There was no strategic value for Erin for Gary getting attacked,” Caston said.
The calls, which were made to an unknown number of households in the weekend prior to the Nov. 6 election, were critical of Wysocky on several fronts.
One claimed that Wysocky refused to help the city when he rejected Olivares’ offer to serve on the Mayor’s Economic Competitiveness Task Force.
Wysocky called this a “half truth” and said he had hoped to serve on the Mayor’s Pension Reform Task Force, given his interest in the subject and experience as a CPA. But when Olivares would not appoint him to that board, Wysocky declined to join the Economic Competitiveness Task Force, noting that the council already had an economic subcommittee.
Another call claimed Wysocky was so bad for economic development that people should vote against him for the sake of their children’s economic future.
“It was a pretty low blow,” Wysocky said.
Wysocky said he believes there were a total of three separate calls in the days immediately before the election. He said he knows a significant number of potential voters received them because numerous supporters alerted him, as did residents when he campaigned door-to-door.
Resident Willard Richards, a Wysocky supporter, received the call about the task force and wrote down the number from his caller ID.
The number had a Portland area code and is assigned to Pacific Telecom Communications Group. The company has been the subject of numerous Federal Trade Commission complaints about its numbers being used for unsolicited telemarketing sales.
Wysocky said he was forced to spend $2,000 on a single robo-call to rebut the weekend calls. That’s why he believes the calls violated local and possibly state campaign finance thresholds.
“I’ve got to believe it was more than $500,” Wysocky said.
But others aren’t so sure. Gale said that while Wysocky probably paid top-dollar for his last-minute robo-call, others can get them far cheaper.
Political consultants often buy blocks of robo-calls well in advance of the election for a fraction of the cost, Gale said. It is possible the calls could have cost less than the $1,000 state threshold, but Gale doubts they were below the $500 level set by the city.
Whatever the case, Gale said any loopholes that allow last-minute, anonymous negative political calls need to be eliminated.
“I’d like to see the City of Santa Rosa address their local ordinance and find ways to tighten that up,” Gale said.