The Galt District Chamber of Commerce has increased its political clout over the past decade, earning itself success and opponents.
In 1998, the chamber endorsed City Council candidates for the first time. Four years later, the chamber formed a political action committee, Businesses United for Good Government.
"BUGG is just the worst thing that's ever happened to Galt," City Councilman Tim Raboy said.
On the other hand, many of Galt's community leaders have received the chamber's blessing and unabashed support. Four of the five City Council members have received financial backing from the chamber PAC, known as Businesses United for Good Government, and supporters say it's a tool to achieve progress in the community.
Galt is one of a growing number of chambers in California to open their pocketbooks to support business-friendly candidates. The California Chamber of Commerce reports about a quarter of local chambers statewide have PACs, said Vincent Sollitto, vice president of media relations and external affairs.
BUGG's support and disdain alike stem from the money that it is able to generate.
In 2005, the group raised $19,200 in contributions and spent more than $11,000 of it supporting Measure B, the $29 million Galt High School bond approved by voters in November.
The previous year, the group raised almost $24,000 while supporting City Council candidates Barbara Payne and Marylou Powers, Galt High board candidates Norman Pearson and Tom Santillan, Galt Elementary board candidates Erv Hatzenbuhler and Cheryl Crombie, and Ron Gravitt, who ran for a Sacramento Municipal Utility District seat. Only Payne, Pearson and Hatzenbuhler won.
Jumping into growth issues
The group's growth as an organization continued in February, when the chamber PAC hired political consultant Nick Garcia to compose a mailer to Galt residents enlisting their support for the controversial Del Webb retirement community proposed on Twin Cities Road.
The mailer included a postcard for supporters of the 2,600-home Del Webb proposal to mail to City Hall. The postcard strongly urged the City Council to include the Del Webb property on its new General Plan map.
BUGG finances at a glance2005: Raised $19,200; spent $11,514, all supporting Galt High bond measure.
2004: Raised $23,931 and had $733 beginning balance; spent $24,085 for advertising and mailers supporting Galt City Council candidates Barbara Payne and Marylou Powers, plus school board and Sacramento Municipal Utility District candidates.
Top contributors: Local developers, Galt Village Shopping Center, Galt Boys and Girls Club President De Carson.
- Source: BUGG campaign disclosure statement.
The City Council agreed on Feb. 21 to tentatively include the 887-acre Del Webb property on the General Plan map. A final decision on whether to seek annexation of the retirement community property is expected later this year after an environmental review.
"That mailer is to get that development (approved)," Raboy said.
As a political action committee registered with the California Secretary of State's Office, BUGG isn't subject to Galt's campaign contribution ordinance, which limits donations by individuals and groups to $100 per candidate during an election year.
It can get around the city ordinance by using so-called "independent expenditures." These include newspaper advertisements and political mailers supporting or opposing a candidate without going directly into the candidate's campaign fund.
Campaign disclosure statements for 2006 aren't available yet, but last year, BUGG received contributions ranging from $200 from LeeAnn McFaddin, who co-chairs BUGG this year, to $5,000 from Pulte Homes, Del Webb's parent company.
Individual contributions to BUGG in 2004 were thousands of dollars higher than the city's $100 limit, including a $5,000 donation by 4 G's Development Group, led by Mike Guttridge, a leading Galt developer. The 4 G's group owns the land where the Del Webb project would be built.
While the Lodi Chamber of Commerce has taken a slightly larger political role in recent years, it is not nearly as active as its neighbor to the north.
The Lodi chamber established a political action committee last year to oppose Measure R, the initiative that would have disallowed Wal-Mart from building a Supercenter in Lodi, said chamber Chief Executive Officer Pat Patrick.
He said the Lodi chamber has never raised campaign money on behalf of candidates. This year, the chamber board voted to endorse Lodi council candidates in the November election, but it hasn't decided whether to reinstate the PAC and raise money on candidates' behalf, Patrick said.
'Businesses need a seat at the table'
As an organization, Galt's chamber PAC has a strong support base, yet it also rubs some segments of the community the wrong way. Critics say BUGG raises large amounts of money on behalf of City Council candidates who support massive growth in Galt.
"It's becoming a slick professionalized machine," said former Councilman Rick Stancil, a staunch slow-growth advocate. "I've always believed that big money drives public policy. I don't see a balance of power between the citizens of the community."
Garcia sees BUGG as a rather progressive organization.
"It's a group that's trying to move things forward," Garcia said. "What's bad about wanting to move things forward?"
He added the chamber PAC will continue to be an advocate as the new Galt General Plan takes shape.
"Businesses need a seat at the table in the political process, and participating in the financing of politics helps that," the California Chamber of Commerce's Sollitto said. "The fact that Galt is doing so is a good thing."
The same developers contribute to BUGG to get large numbers of houses built in Galt, said Tim Raboy, who has refused to accept contributions during his three council elections.
Gary Silva, who co-chairs BUGG this year with McFaddin, said his involvement stems from the chamber's and BUGG's desire to increase its credibility in the community by adding people not directly aligned with developers.
Silva, 45, is a lifelong resident of the Galt area and lives on a cattle ranch in Herald. He served on the Galt High board for four years, declining not to seek a second term in 2004.
Patrick, the Lodi Chamber CEO, said that you can't stereotype chambers.
"We have a saying in this business: 'If you've seen one chamber, you've seen one chamber,'" he said. "We go about it in very different ways, Galt has always been highly political active, Stockton has not, so there you have it."
First published: Friday, April 21, 2006