In a move that was both negatively and positively received and perceived, the Yucaipa City in a 3-to-1 vote on January 23 raised the political donation limit its members can receive from any single contributor from the current state generic standard of $5,500 to $10,000.
While some of the city’s residents saw the change as one which will release the county’s 13th most populous city from the grip of prissy anti-development and slow-growth or no-growth forces that have played a role in the city’s slow maturation for the lion’s share of its 34-year history as a municipality, others expressed dismay that it has advanced what many perceive as the increasing sway of the building industry that will serve to fully manifest the pay-to-play ethos that has transformed more and more of the region’s once agricultural properties and undeveloped land into increasingly urbanized cities.
The action came more than a year after the controlling majority on the city council jettisoned longtime City Manager Ray Casey, a graduate of Princeton University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering before working as a consulting engineer in the private sector and then embarking on a career in the public sector as the principal engineer in the City of Temecula’s land development department, then as the highway engineer and road commission manager for Isabella County in Michigan, the development services deputy director and city engineer with the City of San Bernardino and then becoming the public works director and city engineer with Yucaipa, where in 2008 he was promoted to city manager. Highly thought of by the majority of his political masters on the city council over the years, Casey had an intense and intimate understanding of the need for matching any incoming development with adequate infrastructure, the cost for which had to be defrayed either by the developer or the city’s taxpayers. He was known to be an honest broker between pro-development and anti-development forces and sentiments within the community, one who had historically advocated for and insisted that project proponents be financially responsible for the infrastructure and off-site improvements that must accompany their development efforts.
When Mayor Justin Beaver and councilmembers Bobby Duncan and Matt Garner in January 2023 got rid of Casey in favor of Chris Mann, the principal in Mann Communications, which serves as the mouthpiece for the development industry, a wide cross section of city residents perceived the move as one that was about to usher in City Hall’s adoption of an absolute open-door planning and development process by which the city’s largely rural nature would come under increasing threat and the balance that had long been maintained between Yucaipa’s Old West, worldly, agricultural, mercantile, semi-rural and urban influences was to be discarded and replaced by subdivision after subdivision that would make Yucaipa indistinguishable from scores of other cities in Southern California. This perception was exacerbated by the exposure of information about Duncan and Garner and their financial interests that had not been widely known previously, most notably that Duncan was involved as a real estate broker and Garner is a major player in a large building materials company which does over $4 billion a year in trade. A concerted effort to recall Beaver, Duncan and Garner from office carried out by a committed group of 194 residents ensued. That recall effort became enmired in legal challenges and ended without the trio being removed from office. Nevertheless, recall proponents have revived the effort to blow Duncan and Garner out of City Hall.
Of note is that accompanying the contretemps over Casey’s ouster and Mann’s hiring there has been substantial controversy over the Serrano Estates residential development project. Proposed by Premium Land Development LLC, the residential subdivision is destined for property along the east side of Yucaipa Ridge Road, north of Ivy Avenue, directly adjacent to Quartz Street and Crystal Street. While the planning commission in August 2022, while Casey was yet city manager, denied the development plan and a parallel tentative tract map which included 51 single-family residential units each with a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet by a vote of 4-to-3, eight months later, in April 2023 with Mann in place as the city manager the city council gave approval to the project. The plan for the project had been altered to allow “clustering” of homes to be built, creating a more densely-packed neighborhood on one portion of the 51-acre property, leaving open space and vineyards on the remaining property. What many suspected was occurring was a ploy, by Craig Heaps of Premium Land Development and another project proponent, Melony Martindale, worked out in connivance with members of the city council and Mann, to develop the 51 acres to a far greater intensity and density than the one unit per acre that was applicable in the North Bench area. That strategy, those residents believed, consisted of building the 51 residential units not on one-acre lots but on just over 25 acres in the near term as what would be the first installment; waiting a few years and then building another 51 homes on 12 of the remaining acres of the Serrano Estates; tarrying another six or seven or eight years and then constructing another 51 homes on six of the remaining acres and then in 2045 or thereabouts placing apartments on the remaining acreage to achieve an average overall density on the 51 acres of something approaching five units to the acre.
It was within that atmosphere that Mann three weeks ago arranged to place an item on the January 29 city council agenda calling for eliminating the current limits on campaign donations to the city council.
The concept was presented to the council in a staff report ostensibly written by City Clerk Ana Sauseda.
Sauseda’s agenda report explained that California’s Political Reform Act, first enacted in 1974, “only set campaign contribution limits for state level offices such as senator, assembly member, governor, lieutenant governor, etc. There was no state requirement for cities or counties to have limits in place. Yucaipa, along with the vast majority of other cities in California, did not have limits.”
Sauseda’s report continued, “In 2019, the state legislature adopted AB 571. Pursuant to AB 571, commencing January 1, 2021, if a city or county had not already enacted a contribution limit on such candidates, the limits would automatically default to the state’s campaign contribution limits. The bill further authorized a city to impose limitations that are different from those of the state. Prior to the law going into effect, many cities throughout the state proactively passed ordinances establishing their own limits and thus avoiding defaulting to the state limits. By not adopting an ordinance, the City of Yucaipa has been subject to the contribution limits of AB 571 for the last few years. In addition to the contribution limits, the city has been affected by several other provisions of AB 571 which now also apply to cities and counties.”
Sauseda’s report states, “As the City of Yucaipa has historically not had campaign contribution limits, and after several months of correspondence seeking guidance and clarification from the Fair Political Practices Commission, staff is recommending that the city council adopt an ordinance setting the limit to ‘no limit.’ It’s rare that cities have the option to essentially opt out of a state-imposed law or regulation, but this happens to be one of those opportunities.”
In a circumstance rife with implication that the development community had engaged last year in a hostile takeover of City Hall by getting rid of Casey and installing Mann, who some have characterized as “a shill for the development industry” or “a developer’s dream,” many feared what was about to occur was that any semblance of a limitation on influence peddling in the city was going to be abandoned such that any members of the city council who were either on the fence or opposed to aggressive growth in Yucaipa were about to be bought off by whatever or whichever developmental interest should show up intent on transforming any remaining vacant land in the city to residential, commercial or industrial use. Whereas the current contribution limit in the state stands at $5,500, which was by default applicable to donors to members of the city council, Sauseda’s staff report was recommending that limits be dispensed with entirely. In that way, if someone wanted to contribute $10,000 or $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 or $1 million or more or anywhere in between to a member of the council, that donor would be at liberty to do so. Since the Political Reform Act of 1974 did not prohibit elected officials – such as members of the city council – from voting on any matter impacting a donor and only imposed such a prohibition on an appointed official – such as a member of the planning commission – it seemed that developers would be free to hand out huge contributions to council members. And while a council member would be at liberty to vote against a project proposed by a proponent who had given him $10,000 or $20, 000 or $50,000, what was the prospect of that? For some, Sauseda’s report was an open invitation for the city council to enter into an era of pay-to-pay politics.
The only potential governance on such a scenario would be the district attorney’s California Attorney General’s or the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s enforcement of an obscure provision of state law prohibiting an officeholder from voting on any matter impacting a donor of more than 10 percent of his total contributions.
At the January 23 meeting, one resident, Lloyd Rekstad, said he wanted to know who was behind the concept of allowing developers to provide unlimited amounts of cash to members of the city council.
“I have a question: Who put this item on the agenda?” Rekstad asked. “This flies in the face of transparency. It’s just outrageous. I believe that there are only three ways that this item could have been put on this agenda for tonight: Either the city staff and the city manager put it on, the mayor may have put it on or three or more council members asked that it be put it on. This question, who put it on the agenda, screams for an answer.”
Caught out by Rekstad, City Manager Chris Mann, instead of letting Sauseda take the fall, manned up. He was the prime mover toward eliminating the donation limits, Mann said.
“The reason I put it on the agenda is that a member of this council approached me after having been contacted by their [sic] treasurer, who brought it to their [sic] attention and asked to pass it on to the city clerk’s office.”
Mann offered his perspective that putting limits on how much money an individual can provide to an elected official is “onerous. For example, whether you’re an incumbent or whether you’ve run before and you’ve kept your committee open, up until 2021 it used to always be you could keep that committee open and roll it over. For whatever reason, the State [of California] decided if a city doesn’t adopt its own ordinance, then people have to close out their committees completely and close out their bank accounts completely and reopen for the next cycle.”
Mann’s citation of the inconvenience of having to reopen a campaign bank account with each new election cycle as the rationale for doing away with campaign donation limits was something Rekstad was not ready to swallow. He said the council’s credibility is at stake, particularly given a scathing grand jury report released in December which scored the city council for engaging in activity that has resulted in many residents losing trust in the council.
“I was shocked when I read the packet and realized what was in this consideration after [seeing] the city council being chastised by the grand jury,” Rekstad said. “I am hoping the council will look for ways to rebuild confidence with the community. Eliminating the limit for contributions is not the way to do it. This action is absolutely the opposite. Why does the city council need to have unlimited funds, which, under AB 571 [is] $5,500? Why is that not adequate? The ordinance really is designed to benefit incumbents who do the bidding of high-powered big money investors, clear and simple. They’ll [politicians who receive that money will] support unpopular developments and anything else that they can be bought into.”
Rekstad said, “I believe your resolve is to try to become more transparent, and I’m hoping we’ll see some of that.”
Mann is a pretty sophisticated political operative, having run for office himself when he was elected to the city council in Westlake Village and then later was mayor there. He also quarterbacked multiple efforts by development companies to get their projects approved. In his own words and speaking about himself in the third person, Mann has said he “has been an active partner in numerous development projects in California, Nevada and Arizona” and that he is adept at making sure “elected officials are… provided the political cover they need in order to support good projects” to “provide our clients with a wealth of knowledge and experience and a winning approach to land use entitlement.”
As such, Mann sees advancing the interests of the development community as indistinguishable, for the most part, from advancing the interests of the citizenry at large. In a larger practical sense, Mann told the city council and the public on January 23, setting individual political donation limits would prove futile, since developers, political operatives and politicians with his level of sophistication could find a way to maneuver around them.
“It is hard to compete when you are restricted with financial limits and your opponent really isn’t,” he said. “Campaign contribution limits set by a city do not apply to political action committees,” he said. “They have the ability to expand independently and are not subject to any limits.”
Mann said Yucaipa, for its first 32 years as a municipality, had no campaign limits until the State of California came into the picture and imposed donation limits on local officials who did not actively prevent them from being applied. “So, what we’re doing here today is suggesting that we go back to the way it’s always been here in Yucaipa,” he said, which he characterized as “a level playing field. That was the reasoning behind bringing the item up today.”
Mann expressed the belief that developers or anyone else who wants to influence governmental decisionmakers should be free to do so if they have the money and willingness to spend it to make that happen. The same applies for those who want to influence governmental decision makers against aggressive development. He implied that if the residents of Yucaipa really want to prevent intensive development from occurring, they should put their money where their mouths are and match the pro-development force penny-for-penny, dime-for-dime, dollar-for-dollar, $5,000 donation-for-$5,000 donation or $100,000 donation-for-$100,000 donation.
“Money always finds a way in politics,” Mann said. He implied that very few people in Yucaipa want donation limits.
Kevin Miskin, a Yucaipa resident, did not see it quite the way Mann does, since donations developers make represent a type of investment which offer the potential of a substantial monetary return. Those advocates of low-growth or no-growth who donate money to politicians have no prospect of seeing a return on the money they invest in donations.
“I think the last election really highlighted for us, the citizens, the need for reform within our city council and our city elections,” Miskin said. “After having reviewed all the FPPC [Fair Political Practices Commission] forms with many of the citizens, I think it became very apparent that there was a need for campaign [donation] restrictions, particularly as relates to PACS [political action committees], corporations and out of town contributions. I think the grand jury recommended that there be an amendment to the [Yucaipa] Code of Ethics, as well as code of conduct for city councilmembers.”
Miskin said he felt there should be restrictions on donations to city council campaigns and that disclosure requirements for elected officials be increased to highlight when an elected official votes on a project that benefits one of his campaign donors.
Yucaipa City Attorney Steven Graham reiterated the language in Sauseda’s report, saying, “This is one of the few opportunities the city has to opt out of a state mandated law. Historically, the City of Yucaipa has not had local campaign contribution limits.” Graham reinforced Mann’s recommendation that the city council adopt an ordinance placing no limits on the amount of money a donor can provide to a member of the city council.
Graham said, “The Fair Political Practice Commission makes it explicitly clear that cities are able to pass an ordinance that would once again have no local contribution limit.” By adopting its own ordinance, the city can also bypass other features of the state law such as standard accounting methods and exempt itself from a preventing officeholders or candidates from perpetuating their campaign funds year after year or election cycle after election cycle, Graham said.
Former Planning Commissioner Denise Work suggested the city council was “thumb[ing] your nose at the grand jury” by moving to “just have unlimited contributions.”
She said her work for a development company and her status of the wife of the company’s senior vice president gave her a perspective on the purchasing of influence by developers. “And it is even more than you can imagine,” she said. “Contributions definitely need to be limited. I urge you to put some kind of limits on contributions. No limits screams of corruption and outside influences that we don’t need.”
Mayor Beaver came across as justifying having the city adopt its own campaign contribution limitations because his campaign treasurer had been inconvenienced by having to close out his campaign bank account. He implied that it would be okay to have high limits or no limits because otherwise political action committees will take up the slack and provide special interests with an opportunity to donate money to a candidate in any amount they choose.
Beaver said that an officeholder who takes money from a donor who is seeking to influence him exposes “the character of a candidate.” He appeared to take it as an article of faith that such an exposure of a candidate’s or officeholder’s lack of character or poor character would register prominently with voters and more than offset the advantage the candidate or officeholder would accrue from being able to use the donated money to enhance his campaign.
Councilman Duncan dwelled on the reference to unlimited contributions to political action committees, remarking not on the advantage an incumbent stands to gain from unlimited or large donations but rather on the consideration that local politicians had no ability to limit political action committee money.
In response to Rekstad, Duncan asserted that it was expensive to run a campaign, and he implied that it was therefore justifiable to not limit the amount of money a candidate or officeholder can take in to be able to conduct a campaign.
Duncan made a motion to raise the limit to $10,000.
Councilman Venable made a motion to follow Mann’s suggestion and have no limits.
“I could go with that, too,” said Duncan.
Beaver seconded Duncan’s motion. The council then voted 3-to-1, with Venable voting no. Councilmember Jon Thorp was absent.