After a tumultuous few months of City Council discussion surrounding the Turlock farmers’ market issues, a series of meetings are being set up to revisit campaign finance regulations as directed by Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth.
Campaign contributions became a highlighted part of discussion in meetings regarding the Turlock farmers’ market. Focus on the farmers’ market process and its budding operators was diverted by the two local newspapers. While The Modesto Bee placed emphasis on attacking the contributions made to Mayor Soiseth’s 2014 election campaign, The Turlock Journal performed similar disservice by failing to report any documentation of the Turlock Certified Farmers’ Market alleged nonprofit status and their missing California tax exemption.
As contributions to Mayor Soiseth’s 2014 campaign were repeatedly highlighted, a $2,000 donation by John Ferrari, the husband of TCFM founder Jeani Ferrari, to Councilman Steven Nascimento went unacknowledged and unreported by the local newspapers. While media bias raised concerns regarding campaign contributions that never would have conflicted Councilman Nascimento’s 2014 proposed ordinance, this $2,000 donation, which could have posed a potential conflict of interest and disqualified the Councilman, was not reported.
Campaign finance reform found itself embedded in these farmers’ market discussions, and continued to garner attention from the public and former Turlock Mayor Brad Bates who was vocal about a potential conflict of interest.
On March 1, believing that discussion was necessary on the Time is Now, Clean Up Politics (TIN CUP) ordinance, Mayor Gary Soiseth addressed TIN CUP as an item for future discussion. Progress was made at the last City Council meeting on May 10. City Manager Gary Hampton notified those in attendance of a series of special meetings that would take place in June to discuss campaign finance regulation.
“If you received $500 of income from a source in a year, you have a legal conflict and you can’t vote, but you can take 20,000… in campaign contributions and, as long as you properly report the contributions as a source, you can apparently legally vote on the issues before the council,” stated Bates at the Mar. 15 special meeting.
“A lot of people are surprised to learn this, but that is the way the law is written.”
As pointed out by Turlock City Attorney Phaedra Norton at the Mar. 15 meeting, there are multiple resources that support the idea that campaign contributions do not disqualify an elected officer operating in his elected capacity from voting.
As noted in the Turlock Municipal Code, a member of the Council is disqualified from voting due to a conflict of interest pursuant to State law. The member declares the conflict and abstains from the Council discussion decision regarding the matter.
Utilizing material from the Institute of Local Governments, California Attorney General, California Supreme Court Cases, and the California Fair Political Practices Commission, City Attorney Norton reiterated multiple examples of how campaign contributions on the local level do not serve as a basis for disqualification and that transparency requires disclosure.
In Feb. 2014, a public hearing for campaign contributions was held with the Turlock City Council at the time. As presented during the hearing, the request would amend the municipal code and add a chapter on campaign contributions.
The public hearing had multiple individuals speak against it, and opposition from the City Council included short notice for the public to engage in dialogue, the intent and potential ramifications of the $2,000 contribution limit, and the implication of unethical practices.
In Apr. 2014, Council discussion regarding campaign contributions resulted in the ordinance being taken off the agenda and no action being taken. Councilmembers Steven Nascimento and Amy Bublak, who both are expected to run for the District 4 City Council seat, agreed to proceed with staff placing campaign contribution forms online.
Due to the discussions regarding the farmers’ market, the issue has resurfaced, and each one of the four City Council district will be a host for a campaign finance meeting as the City gauges public opinion on campaign finance reform.
“Nationally, there has been a tremendous amount of discussion surrounding campaign finance reform throughout the Presidential primaries. I believe it's prudent then for us to be proactive at the local level and gauge our community through these meetings being held in each Council district,” stated Councilmember Matthew Jacob.” The purpose is to aid in shaping any new policy that may affect future Turlock elections.”
These special meetings include Turlock High School on June 8 for District 1, Cunningham Elementary on June 9 for District 2, Dennis Earl Elementary School on June 15 for District 3, and Turlock Junior High for District 4. All meetings are scheduled to begin at 6 PM.
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