Elimination Of Pay-To-Play Dealing Strips SBC Politicians Of Their 1st Class Tickets Aboard The Gravy Train

A ruling by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge upholding Senate Bill 1439 and its anti-pay-to-play provisions is likely to be as or more impactful in San Bernardino County than anywhere else in the Golden State.
Yesterday, May 25, Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi held that the law, which was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in November and went into effect in January but was challenged by a series of plaintiffs in February, does not run afoul of either the U.S. or the California constitutions.
Senate Bill 1439 amended the Political Reform Act of 1974, which prohibits an elected official with or officer of an agency from accepting, soliciting, or directing a contribution of more than $250 from any party while a proceeding involving a license, permit, or other entitlement for use is pending before the agency. Previously, the Political Reform Act restricted appointed officials, such as members of a planning commission, from receiving the $250 threshold amount or more in the form of a political contribution and then voting on any item or issue impacting that donor. Senate Bill 1439 broadens that provision of the Political Reform Act to cover local elected officials.
In the past, a member of a city council could take $250 or any amount of money from a donor and vote on approving that donor’s project or contract. With the advent of Senate Bill 1439, that is no longer the case if the donation to the office holder exceeds $249.99. In such a circumstance, the officeholder will have the option of returning the money to the donor and voting on the project in question or keeping the money and being unable to vote on any issue impacting that donor for a full year from the time of receiving the donation.Senate Bill1439 was backed by multiple government reform and governmental transparency supporters. California Common Cause Executive Director Jonathan Mehta Stein referred to the law as “an obvious pay-to-play limitation.”
Indeed, over the last fifty to sixty years, California has become a so-called pay-to-play state in which it is expected that government employee unions, developers, real estate interests, land speculators, government contractors and suppliers and franchise holders are expected to provide political donations to the state’s elected decision-makers, from the governor to state senators to members of the Assembly to members of county boards of supervisors to city and town council members to school board members to water district board members and fire district board members. That expectation in many cases goes beyond a simple anticipation that the money will be provided to a virtual requirement, such that approval of project applications, contracts and franchises are unlikely to occur in those cases where the developer, service or goods provider or franchisee making the application has not contributed to the powers that be. For decades government critics have pointed to this circumstance, decrying it as an ubiquitous demonstration of ongoing quid pro quos while they have accused the politicians benefiting by these donations of receiving bribes. Those seeking reform have pointed out that an appointed member of a planning commission who has run for office and in so doing received donations from a developer or landowner who then voted as a planning commissioner to approve a project proposed by that developer or on property owned by that landowner would be deemed to have broken the law. It is nonsensical, those reformists argue, to allow elected officials to engage in taking money from an individual or company or corporation and permit the recipient to then vote on a matter in which that donor had a stake in the outcome of the vote.
Senate Bill 1439 is serving as the first step toward adjusting the perception that California’s politicians can be bought.
While many reformers hailed the new law, nevertheless some reformers and critics find fault with certain of its elements and provisions. Many of those say it is unbalanced and incomplete. Senate Bill 1439 is applicable to neither members of the state legislature as recipients nor to unions as donors. Exceptions to both were cut out in the language of Senate Bill 1439.
Perhaps because of the former of those two exceptions, Senate Bill 1439, touted as bipartisan in that it was co-authored by State Senator Steve Glazer, Democrat-Orinda, and State Senator Scott Wilk, Republican-Victorville, passed unanimously in the legislature in 2022 without any real expression of oppostion.
The law went into effect on January 1, 2023, but in February, the Family Business Association of California, the California Restaurant Association, the California Retailers Association, the California Building Industry Association, the California Business Properties Association, the California Business Roundtable, the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, Rancho Cordova City Councilman Garrett Gatewood and Sacramento County Supervisor Pat Hume filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court, seeking to stop the implementation of the law, alleging it improperly altered the California Political Reform Act, was overly broad and infringed on free speech protections related to the right to petition governments. According to the suit, the law discourages and prevents citizens, business interests, companies and employees of those companies from supporting those seeking local political office.
Simultaneously, criticism of the law was being registered elsewhere, particularly because of its lack of applicability to public employee unions.
The two largest categories of donors to local politicians consist of developers and public employee unions. Government reformers have long maintained that California’s politicians have proven themselves to be more sympathetic to developmental interests and public employees, who supply those officeholders with the lion’s share of the money they need to influence voters to vote for them, than they are to their constituents who actually do the voting. This has resulted, those critics allege, in government watering down the regulation applied to the building industry and the runaway escalation in salaries and benefits provided to county and municipal employees throughout the state.
While Senate Bill 1439 carries with it the potential that it will check the influence of the development community, those critics maintain, it will do nothing to lessen, and in actuality will increase, the hold that public employee unions have over local politicians now that those unions will become the undisputed major source of donations to elected officials, such that the inflation of public employee salaries will continue unabated.
In his decision rendered yesterday, Judge Sueyoshi rejected the lawsuit’s contention that Senate Bill 1439’s provision prohibiting elected officials from voting on matters that impact donors to their campaigns was inconsistent with the rights of California citizens enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution.
“The United States Supreme Court has recognized that preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance is a compelling state interest,” Sueyoshi wrote. “Defendants have provided sufficient evidence that SB 1439 sought to address this corruption by eliminating an exception for local elected officials in the legislative history.”
If indeed, California’s reputation as a pay-to-play jurisdiction is well deserved, San Bernardino County is at the epicenter of that culture.
So ingrained is the concept that those seeking action by, or redress of grievances from, their government in San Bernardino County must pay for it that in many City Halls those seeking project approval come armed with briefcases stuffed with cash. In more than a dozen cases stretching back for a generation, governmental figures, both elected and at the highest staff levels, had grown so accustomed to the practice of exchanging money for access to elected officials and official action in response to their requests that governmental officials – elected ones and top staffers who were facilitating what the elected officials were trying to accomplish – inadvertently ended up being prosecuted for bribery, graft or corruption by carrying on in ways in which they and their predecessors always had. Among those were San Bernardino County Supervisor Jerry Eaves, San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, Upland Mayor John Pomierski, Colton Mayor Carl Gaytan, Colton City Councilman Don Sanders, Colton City Councilman Abe Beltran, Colton City Councilman James Grimsby, San Bernardino City Councilwoman Valerie Pope-Ludlum, Adelanto Mayor Richard Kerr, Adelanto Councilman Jermaine Wright, San Bernardino County Treasurer Thomas O’Donnell, San Bernardino County Chief Administrative Officer Harry Mays, San Bernardino County Chief Administrator James Hlawek, San Bernardino County Chief Investment Officer Sol Levin and Upland City Manager Robert Quincey, all of whom were prosecuted and convicted. With the exceptions of Pope-Ludlum and Quincey, those prosecutions did not originate with local enforcement agencies or the San Bernardino County District Attorneys Office, with the lion’s share being federal prosecutions in which the FBI and federal prosecutors were involved. In the matters involving Eaves and Postmus, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office did act, but only in reaction to or in conjunction with the FBI, federal prosecutors or the California Attorney General’s Office.
In far more cases than were ever prosecuted, county and municipal officials in San Bernardino County entangled themselves in circumstances by which providing elected officials with monetary offerings in the form of campaign contributions was de rigueur for anyone who wanted to accomplish anything that involved government approval.
During what is referred to as San Bernardino County’s “Golden Age of Corruption,” county supervisors Robert Hammock, Cal McElwain and Robert Townsend freely indulged in accepting money, in the form of both campaign donations and largesse passed to them in other ways, from those whose projects and contracts they approved. Later, in the 1990s, Supervisor Marsha Turoci, and then in the 2000s, supervisors Gary Ovitt and Paul Biane got in on the bonanza. Fontana Mayor Nat Simon, Fontana Councilman Don Day, San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia, San Bernardino Councilman Ralph Hernandez, Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Chuck Buquet, Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Dick Dahl, Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Robert Dutton, Upland Councilman Frank Carpenter, Redlands Mayor Sven Larson, Apple Valley Councilman David Holman, Apple Valley Councilwoman Barbara Loux, Apple Valley Councilman Patrick Jacobo, Hesperia Mayor Bruce Kitchen, Hesperia Councilman George Beardsley, Hesperia Mayor Percy Bakker, Hesperia Councilman Paul Russ and Hesperia Mayor Russ Blewett militated, in most cases mightily, on behalf of the developers and business interests that bankrolled their campaigns.
At present, the pay-to-play ethos lives on throughout the county, on the board of supervisors and on virtually every city or town council to one extent or another. In particular, the development industry and business interests, not to mention public employee unions, are continuing to purchase influence with the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and on the city councils in Adelanto, in Barstow, in Big Bear Lake, in Redlands, in Fontana, in Ontario and in Upland.
An indication of the degree to which the pay-to-play mentality pervades San Bernardino County is that in no fewer than 18 of the county’s 22 cities and two towns there is at least one entity which has made donations exceeding the $250 threshold to either a quorum or all of that municipality’s council. It is not clear, at this point, how those cities or towns will resolve the inability of their councils to vote on issues involving those companies or individuals, particularly where that involvement consists of the entity holding an existing service franchise.
-Mark Gutglueck

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