Mountain View Voice

News - October 22, 2010

Measure T campaign raises questions

Former councilman suspects city's involvement in phone tax measure

by Daniel DeBolt

In the campaign to update the city's phone tax, Mountain View officials are dismissing concerns about the city staff's involvement in the campaign. A former councilman has raised questions about the appearance of taking campaign funds from housing developers and the appropriateness of using of city funds on a mailer.

Measure T would extend the city's phone tax to broadband phone services as well as international and out-of-state calls. The tax itself is expected to raise the average resident's phone bill by about 15 cents a month.

The tax is currently bringing the city's general fund $1.9 million a year but it is declining because of increased broadband phone use. The measure may also prevent legal challenges to the existing tax, which is based on an obsolete federal law.

But former council member Greg Perry says city resources were used to promote the measure in way that is illegal, or at least has the appearance of being inappropriate. Leaders of the campaign acknowledge that city funds and resources cannot be used in the campaign.

Assistant's e-mail

In an e-mail obtained by the Voice, assistant to the city manager Kevin Woodhouse makes an appeal to a resident to help organize the Yes on T campaign. While it may appear that the city manager's office orchestrated the start of the campaign, Woodhouse says he wrote such e-mails on his personal time from his personal e-mail address in order to comply with campaign law.

"We need to get as many folks there as possible" to a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, Woodhouse writes. The e-mail lists key community leaders that City Council members are targeting to recruit for the campaign, which had yet to begin when the e-mail was written.

I used "my time and my resources completely independent from city time and city resources," Woodhouse said.

Councilman Mike Kasperzak, who is the spokesman for the Yes on Measure T campaign, vouched for Woodhouse, saying the two always met away from city hall and communicated through personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

Consultant's campaign advice

Woodhouse's e-mail also reveals that campaign advice came from a city-funded consultant, Larry Tremutola, who was paid by the city to study the phone tax issue before it went on the ballot.

Tremutola "believes that in order to maximize the possibility of success, at least a modest campaign will be needed (a supportive steering committee, possibly one mailer or ads and $10,000-$20,000 in funding)," Woodhouse wrote.

Tremutola account representative Steven Boardman said he was the Tremutola employee who helped with the campaign.

"Very little time (was) given and we were happy to give it," Boardman said. "We weren't working with anyone from the city when we were working on the campaign." Woodhouse "was acting as a volunteer," he added.

Perry still questioned the action.

"I think the city paid for the consultant with the expectation they would also be paying for campaign services," Perry said. As to the notion that Boardman donated his services, Perry said, "I would like to know if this consultant would be willing to donate his services to other campaigns."

Larry Tremutola is "regarded as the country's top expert on passing difficult tax measures," according to the firm's website.

Campaign contributions

So far, the Yes on T campaign has raised $8,500, said treasurer and planning commissioner Chris Clarke. Part of the funding was used to send out a campaign mailer earlier this week.

Donors to Yes on T include Regis Homes ($1,500) which wants to build several hundred home on Ferguson Drive, Summerhill Homes ($500) which is about to build 50 homes on Grant Road, Minton's Lumber and Supply ($1,000) whose owners are about to lease the store's land for a 200-unit apartment complex, Tod Spieker ($1,000) whose company now manages the Regency Apartments on Escuela Avenue, the Mountain View Firefighter's Association ($2,000) and SEIU organized city employees ($2,500).

Perry questioned the donations, describing some of them as "extortion" and "insurance money" for developers.

"It gives developers a choice of donating money to the yes campaign or wondering whether their project is going to get stalled by staff," Perry said.

Nothing to that effect needs to be said by either side, and "I don't think anybody in the room is stupid enough to need to say something," Perry said. "The city can cost developers millions of dollars if they decide to drag their heels."

"I think the city's zoning authority should be used to extract park money not campaign donations," Perry added.

'No quid pro quo'

Kasperzak said there was no "quid pro quo" or expectation of favors for the donations, which would be illegal. He said the developers were interested in preserving the city services that the tax helps to fund. And the unions were not looking to hold onto their pensions, as Perry claims, but may instead want to help prevent layoffs next year and preserve quality services.

"They have projects in the city they are trying to sell," Kasperzak said of developers. "It's absolutely in their interest to have good public services, good schools, good streets and everything like that."

An informational mailer the city sent to residents several weeks ago describes the effects of the measure. It says that if the measure does not pass, $1.8 million in funds for core city services, including firefighting and police, would be at risk.

Perry said the mailer was inappropriate use of taxpayer funds because it reads like a "long list of reasons to vote yes" and uses the same language the Yes on T campaign uses.

"The city is permitted by law to put out an informational, unbiased piece," Kasperzak said. "Perry is entitled to his opinion. The fact of the matter is that the current tax provides $1.9 million and that $1.9 million helps pay for a number of things. Is listing those things advocacy? It's a factual statement."

As to Perry's remarks in general, "It's hard to argue against the negative," Kasperzak said. "People can argue all the innuendo they want. If somebody wants to find a boogeyman, somebody can go out and find a boogeyman. But you have to take people at their word, I believe."

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by Sean, a resident of Monta Loma
on Oct 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I am absolutely disgusted by this. The idea that city employees can run a shadow campaign this way is deplorable. The astute means by which these people kept their actions marginally legal, if we can believe their own words, is a pure manifestation of everything that is wrong in our governing bodies.

At the start of this week, I pretty much planned to vote for the incumbents in the city council races. Yesterday I received a mailer from the SEIU supporting Margaret Abe-Koga. Every big development in town is represented on the donation list, despite the fact that increasing taxes is a deterrent to home sales. The Regency Apartments city troubles are well documented, and the Fireman's union will undoubtedly turn their donation into a lot more than $2000 in political capital. It's seems really odd that groups that will see little to no benefit, or benefit only through graft, from the increased phone tax are such ardent supporters of it.

Mike Kasperzak's word doesn't mean anything to me after his comments here. He sounds like a greasy lawyer taunting the public to catch him at his crimes.


Posted by Mike Laursen, a resident of Monta Loma
on Oct 21, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Mr. DeBolt, kudos for investigating this matter. Some of had picked up on hints that something inappropriate might be going on, but it's nice to have a journalist out there investigating.


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