When a candidate takes matters in her hands....
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
By Erica Aitken and Ami Chen Mills
Ami Chen Mills questions the behavior of four City Councilmembers at a private fundraiser.
A few weeks ago, a resident of Santa Cruz who happened to be on the Santa Cruz Together email list, attended a fundraising meeting in a public space, for the benefit of candidate Kalantari-Johnson and for Measure E. The meeting was defined as public but there was no public outreach to bring people to the meeting. The group's Facebook page is private and you must let them know whether you own rental property if you want to join. That same group has 29 followers on Instagram and posts nothing. Nobody saw posters or any other form of publicity. Ann Simonton, who attended the meeting, made a recording of it because she was shocked to see four councilmembers present of which one, Kalantari-Johnson, is running for County Supervisor. The group discussed fundraising strategies and government business around measure E, strongly supported, and how to raise funds beyond the legal cap. If Measure E passes, the city will be divided into districts that cut neighborhoods in pieces. That is meant to neutralize their voting power. We call this gerrymandering, a Republican strategy we've seen many times.
The meeting is clearly in violation of the Brown Act and of fundraising rules.
Was the meeting public? And why is that important?
Ann Simonton filed a complaint with the County District Attorney and with the City. Both lawyers, who are supposed to represent the people of Santa Cruz, dismissed her complaint on the grounds that the meeting was public. It wasn't although, I suppose, if you wandered in the winery where it was held, you would not be asked to leave. But I don't know that for a fact.
Ami Chen Mills, candidate for County Supervisor and running against Kalantari-Johnson, has brought this issue to the attention of the public but to no avail because it was quickly dismissed. What can you do when government lawyers protect their own?
Instead of giving up, and at the risk of jeopardizing her campaign, Ami Chen Mills is filing a FPPC complaint (The FPPC is the agency responsible for the fair application, interpretation, and enforcement of the Political Reform Act.) She's taking it further, she wants to see this through.
Below is her statement. We owe ourselves to demand transparency and integrity from our city government. Let's not vote for a corrupt candidate.
Ami Chen Mills Statement on FPPC Complaint and Brown Act Issues in Primary Race for District Supervisor and Regarding Current Council Members, Respectively
An in-depth article was published in Santa Cruz Local this past weekend on these issues. This is the most comprehensive treatment of alleged Brown Act violations and my own FPPC complaint against the Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson campaign, and past elected officials’ stance on a majority of City Council members meeting at a Santa Cruz Together (SCT) fundraiser, to date.
The FPPC declined to investigate my initial complaint, and gave us 20 days to appeal and/or re-file a complaint (a five year window) with more evidence. We have been reviewing our case with a former FPPC executive and plan to re-file. I cannot comment on what a second filing would include at this time, but this would become public record when filed.
(A couple notes on this article: Local resident Ann Simonton, who recorded the SCT meeting, did not file a complaint with the FPPC, as far as we know. She filed with the local DA re: The Brown Act and also what appeared to be violations of campaign finance laws. Ann Simonton and I do not have a personal relationship, but I included her as a “witness” in my complaint, because she was a witness to the Santa Cruz Together meeting. Second note: I was not contacted for comment by Santa Cruz Local for this article, although Shebreh was).
A Brief History of What Happened, From My View
I listened to Simonton’s full recording of the Santa Cruz Together (SCT) fundraiser. Although the City Attorney claims this was an “open and public meeting,” I do not consider this an “open and public” meeting–as who would really go, besides specific people who actually support SCT? I did not know about this meeting, nor was I invited. Were you? Simonton went as a “mole” in the public interest, apparently, after having signed up for the SCT email list.
After Simonton’s recording came out, I felt broad public discussion of the issues was warranted–discussion about the Brown Act, campaign finance and Santa Cruz Together, which has had enormous influence on our local politics. SCT was behind the campaign to defeat rent control, behind the recall effort to remove two “progressive” council members from City Council, behind campaigns for many of our current Council members, including those at the SCT meeting, and currently opposed to the Empty Homes Tax–all campaigns that affect housing, renters, the unhoused and much more, whether you support these campaigns or not.
Former Third District Supervisor Gary Patton wrote an opinion at his blog site. And I, along with other past elected officials, who are not, actually, all my supporters, held a press conference with other such officials and community leaders (including two past mayors) at City Hall, to get the ball rolling.
I believed that apparent “coordination” of strategy between the two campaigns (SCT and Shebreh’s campaign) was illegal according to my research. It seemed to me this happened at that meeting because SCT reps spoke at length about strategy for electing Shebreh while Shebreh was present, and had just made a fundraising speech. (I will address the Brown Act later.)
While I have received several messages from Shebreh supporters that SCT is “just local folks,” SCT receives funds from corporate entities, such as the Seaside Company, local real estate interests (agencies and brokers), building and construction companies or reps, local developers, “wealth managers,” and out-of-county interests. In their work to defeat rent control, they worked in tandem with anti-Measure M committees, some with offices in Sacramento, which drew hundreds of thousands of dollars from the National Realtors Association ($68,750) and the California Real Estate Association ($175,000), among others to defeat renter protections here.
On How Campaign Finance Can Impact the Issues
Given the enormous (and understandable) pressure statewide now to build, build, build, all this seems highly relevant to me and to this election. For example, besides just building, we could also address affordability, renter protections, new forms of rent control and many other ways to tackle the housing crisis, in addition to building more housing. (My own focus as Supervisor would be on what we most lack now in District 3: very low income, low income and workforce housing).
California is actually losing population, and our County overall has lost population recently, except in the City of Santa Cruz. According to another excellent article in Santa Cruz Local, some of the pressures for housing are likely due to Silicon Valley employees now having more freedom to work from home and wanting to move here.
The issue of building “market rate” housing versus trying to enforce renter protections and prevent fraud against rental applicants, who often lose thousands of dollars without even securing an apartment, are all statewide issues–driven not just by friendly debate, but by a huge amount of influence from developers and real estate interests locally and at the State level, including the national group YIMBY.
It is important, in my mind, that any candidate or public official here in this County be able to consider all the issues for the good of the community, without undue pressure and influence from donors who represent real estate and development interests.
I have also read recent blogs from former city officials who write with some disdain about those who, for example, support the Our Downtown Our Future initiative. I have seen snide opinions that people who care about parking lots, hotels and other massive structures that may or not be necessary and are now proposed to be built here are living in a “fantasy land.”
I would submit that, generally speaking, we are all now living in a fantasy land. While US military officials, along with highly respected scientists and academics like Katherine Hayhoe, Jem Bendell and so many others are predicting “civilizational collapse” possibly by mid-century (that is in 25 years) or sooner, we continue to pretend as though everything is normal, that all this is not true, and somehow does not affect us.
We ignore the fact that (not really) “free market” driven principles toward “endless growth” and maximum profit–as well as lobbying and campaign finance–are directly behind the current and coming collapse of our ecosystems and human systems.
The worsening climate and ecological crises (including mass loss of species, collapse of coral reefs and fisheries, insects and birds, etc.) are massive and very real crises we face, along with housing. How do we ethically address, mitigate and prepare for all of this, and what does an emphasis on more use of concrete, steel and other building materials, with all the extraction, processing, transport and resulting GHG emissions involved mean for our global health and planetary livability? For ourselves, our children and grandchildren?
What does our drive toward ever more growth and consumption of resources mean for island nations, for African nations, Southeast Asian nations and other nations of the global South? Do we care or not care about racism and Black and brown bodies, Santa Cruz County? Do we care about the climate crisis? And do we understand that all cities and counties must do their part? I understand that as a Supervisor, most projects in the County will happen without my vote. But we can pass legislation to replace gas stoves with electric; to use more climate-friendly building materials; and we can pre-plan and zone for infill development along transportation corridors and support the kind of housing we most need now.
I want to note that the Brown Act seems to be followed by “honor code” more than it is actually ever prosecuted. So many past officials (including past mayors and supervisors) I have spoken with and who have written or spoken about this incident publicly believe the overall lack of caution and potential for possible side conversations (which would not be in Simonton’s recording) as well as actual promotion of Measure E at the SCT meeting was the worst of it.
From the Brown Act introduction: “It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
I do not have personal issues with Council Members involved and consider some to be friends, or at least friendly. However, when I served on the City’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness (CACH), we were schooled at great length on the Brown Act and we attempted with all grave seriousness to follow it.
Ironically, in recently reviewing our CACH workbook on the Brown Act, I read that as a temporary committee, we were not even bound by the Brown Act! I found that very funny. But permanent government committee and commission members and quite clearly, City Council and Board of Supervisor members are.
The moving testimony of former Mayor Tim Fitzmaurice and others at our Press Conference, indicates to me that some elected officials really do attempt to abide by the spirit of the act, even if they are possibly within bounds of the letter of the act. Fitzmaurice spoke of walking out of ball games and even funerals because three other Council members were already present.
In this case (the SCT fundraiser), although anyone possibly could attend this meeting, theoretically, was the agenda posted far and wide for all in the community to see? Would any member of the public feel welcome at such a meeting (to raise funds for a particular candidate and for Measure E)? Certainly, I would not! … Simonton went as a kind of public-servant spy. But who else would go? Would any person with any view feel welcome? I doubt this very much.
Additionally, discussion at this fundraiser, including the presence of four Council members (Renee Golder, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Donna Meyers and Martine Watkins) centered around what is now a highly controversial measure in our City (Measure E) that is on our current ballot; would alter the City charter; and was on the Council’s agenda, too, for its next meeting. Opponents of Measure E claim the Council majority at this Santa Cruz Together meeting ignored the advice of demographers and proposed a map that would break up and exclude minority members of our community, as well as dilute the student vote at UCSC.
I am not clear if a fundraising meeting at a private winery of a very specifically-focused PAC, centered around promotion of a controversial measure that amends the City charter; and promotion of a certain supervisorial candidate, attended by a majority of Council members in hopes of ensuring this measure will pass and said candidate might win–all for the apparent benefit of donors to this PAC–is illegal according to any laws at all, but my thought is that it should be!
As with so much of our lobbying and campaign financing, locally, statewide and nationally, so very, very much of what happens is actually perfectly legal. And that is what is wrong with our “democracy.”
–Ami Chen Mills, Candidate for County Supervisor, District 3
I always welcome factual corrections: firstname.lastname@example.org