Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

October 31, 2006 > Who loves ya, baby?

Who loves ya, baby?

In 1973, Telly Savalas emerged on the small screen as a bald, no-nonsense, lollipop-sucking detective, Lt. Theo Kojak, whose tag line was "who loves ya, baby?" This tough, outspoken and streetwise guy would ferret out criminals and bag them with regularity every week. Kojak's rhetorical question might be appropriate to ask of our local politicians as they face the voters at election time to find out how much love and trust exists between them.

It would be interesting to see what Kojak would do with the candidate lineup presented to the public at each election. These are people who profess to uphold the laws and rules of the land, yet some of them begin by disregarding election disclosure regulations. As is often the case, statements, records and disclosure forms are quietly filed and then forgotten, even by watchdog agencies such as the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The FPPC's role is regulatory, but it only seems to regulate after a complaint has been filed by activist citizens or campaign opponents.

Candidates for municipal office are governed by a set of laws designed to allow the public to understand who is running for office. A preliminary form simply lists an address and asserts the intention to run for a particular office. Qualification is based on submission of a "Nomination Paper" with at least 20 addresses and signatures of valid, registered voters, as confirmed by the county Registrar of Voters. A fee of $2,000 is required if the candidate wishes to publish a voluntary candidate statement, but this is not required. Candidates may choose to sign a "Code of Fair Campaign Practices," but this is also not required.

At this point, the only thing a voter may know about the candidate is name, address and contact information. Signatures on the nomination paper may include people who know the individual or people who simply signed the form in support of a prospective candidate. The Secretary of State records, but does not confirm, the candidate's occupation, if one is listed. Each candidate then signs an affidavit affirming that all information listed is correct and true. Candidates are not asked about citizenship, even though only U.S. citizens may run for elective office. Natives of the United States are citizens by birth; naturalized citizens have only to declare their status by checking a box on their voter registration form. The Registrar of Voters does not routinely confirm this information.

A candidate's financial holdings or business interests may be of interest to voters, especially if business dealings might interfere with governance, or represent a possible conflict of interest when considering contracts or other fiscal decisions. For this reason, candidates and those who hold certain municipal offices are required by law to disclose their financial positions, within certain broad measures of value. Also, since California is a community property state, candidates must disclose spousal business interests, stock holdings and employment earnings.

Campaigns can be expensive undertakings and the public has the right to know who is giving money to those running for office. The 1974 voter-approved initiative known as The Political Reform Act, established the FPPC in the wake of the Nixon administration's questionable political activities. The Act required disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures during elections. Candidates are briefed by local jurisdictions to disclose information about their campaign committees and they must list the names and addresses of all contributors, along with the amounts donated to the campaign.

With several agencies handling paperwork and with state laws mandating disclosure from public officials, it would seem reasonable for the public to be assured that candidates are vetted, making sure that at least required forms are filled out and submitted with accurate information. Unfortunately, as with many rules and laws on the books, intentions are rarely matched by compliance. TCV decided to look at the public filings of current candidates for office in the greater Tri-Cities area. Local clerks informed us that we, as well as the general public, were free to examine the filings. However, clerks made clear their role was simply to accept the papers with a review for proper completion of basic information boxes. Neither city clerks nor city attorneys are responsible for insuring accuracy of the information presented, or for verifying its truthfulness.

With our Kojak lollipop firmly in hand, we read through the files. We found some candidates filed all required documents while others appeared to omit information that, on cursory examination, amounted to glaring deficiencies and possible evasion. We found consistent compliance in the filings of campaign committee information and donor records disclosures. Then, the story changed when reviewing the various schedules that must be attached to FPPC Form 700, "Statement of Economic Interests." The schedules apply to specific economic information that may affect a candidate's decisions in office.

The Form 700 is where a candidate must disclose investments, real property holdings, and any business interests held on the day the Declaration of Candidacy is due. Plus, candidates must also disclose income received for the 12 months prior to the date of filing, including full disclosure of a spouse's income and interests where applicable.

In our review of the documents filed for this election, we found that while Fremont City Council candidates Bill Harrison and Alan Stirling fully disclosed all required information, candidate and appointed incumbent, Anu Natarajan, failed to file a Schedule C with information about personal income, her husband's holdings and income and disclosure of a property management business advertised on the Internet.

In the Union City, City Council race, none of the candidates disclosed any spousal interests. What's more, candidate and incumbent, Richard Valle, filed no form 700 schedules. Instead, he checked a box marked "No reportable interests on any schedule." Voters might infer from this that Valle has no income, business holdings, spousal interests or stocks.

Milpitas mayoral candidate, Jose Estevez, filed a complete disclosure of both his and his wife's interests. His opponent, Henry Manayan, reported no spousal interests, and only a minor ownership interest in an orchid nursery. This conflicts with his public assertions of considerable success in commercial real estate ventures. In the city council races, disclosure statements of spousal interests were not on file by any candidate.

Voters are led to believe certain "facts" about their elected officials and those who promote themselves as trustworthy representatives in political campaigns, but what conclusion can we draw, when incomplete information and obfuscation are the answers to legally mandated disclosures? In some instances, candidates have clearly retired from active investing or business interests, but in others it strains credulity to believe their statements or lack of filing any statement at all. These are the same civic leaders entrusted with oversight of hundreds of millions of dollars of public money. In future issues, TCV plans to explore these questions in more depth.

In the meantime, when you go to the polls and vote, the question remains, "Who loves ya baby?"

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