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Unions, developers, businesses funnel money into council campaigns

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Posted: Saturday, September 4, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:46 am, Sat Sep 4, 2010.

A review of more than 600 Lodi City Council contributions shows developers, public safety unions, Food 4 Less and Waste Management as some of the top donors. They all are pouring thousands of dollars into campaigns. And they all have something to gain from council decisions.

Some say it is a conflict of interest, but the council members say it’s part of politics.

“Everybody elected to office is going to tell you that their vote is not for sale,” Councilman Larry Hansen said. “I think we all try to do that. We try to vote on what is sincerely best for the city, not who has contributed.”

While analysis shows that a majority of the money comes from individuals, there is still money pouring in from businesses, unions and political action committees.

Since 1998, about 55 percent of the reported donations, or $86,600, came from individual contributions to all five candidates. Businesses contributed the second-most at around $45,000. Unions donated $11,710, while political actions committees also gave $10,950.

Council members and donors both defend contributions, saying people give to council candidates who share the same values and beliefs.

“It’s a job that most people don’t want, and they are grateful that someone is willing to put the time into it,” Hansen said.

Showing support through cash

Several of the candidates have received donations from public safety unions and businesses, like Waste Management, that have contracts controlled by council members.

These type of donations can be problematic, especially at the local level, said Peter Sheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

At the national level, there is more transparency because there are more reporters as well as special interests monitoring donations, Sheer said.

Locally, contracts with union employees are often negotiated behind closed doors.

And while candidates work to prevent influence, it is hard to vote on business deals without taking donations into account.

“The only real antidote to that is to let the people see where the money is flowing and to where the favors are going,” Sheer said.

Susan Hitchcock was one of several council members to receive support from a city union. She received $1,000 in 2002 from the Lodi Professional Firefighters.

She said unions obviously have an interest in who is on council because the council has control over the union’s salaries and benefits.

“They are going to search out people who they feel maybe have a leaning,” Hitchcock said. “They think we are going to be sympathetic or at least open.”

Support from unions is often key to a candidate’s success, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

“The connection between the amount of money and direct involvement in local politics has relation on how rich the (public employee) contracts become,” Coupal said.

But that is not how Brad Doell, president of the firefighters union, sees it. He said they review and speak with all the candidates, and when they donate, they do not expect anything in return.

One of the main reasons they participate in the political process is because they ultimately end up working for the council, he said.

“The reason that we donate is because if we find someone whose ideas and outlook on the city align with ours, we are inclined to help them win,” Doell said.

Hansen received $1,000 from both the Lodi Professional Firefighters and the Police Officers’ Association of Lodi in 2002.

He gets support from the unions because public safety is one of his top priorities, he said, but that doesn’t mean he votes based on their wishes. During the last budget year, he voted to reduce both the fire and police department budgets.

“It came down to balancing the budget,” he said. “They contributed to me in the past, but I voted for them to take the concession or else have to lay off some personnel.”

Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce received $1,000 in 2004 and $3,000 in 2008 from the firefighters union, which was the most any candidate received from city unions.

She believes they support her because she has always expressed appreciation for when firefighters saved most of her belongings and her cat when her neighbor’s garage caught on fire in 1993.

“When you tell that story and you tell the firefighter how much they meant to you ... they know how much I appreciate it,” Mounce said.

Businesses with contracts before the city also sometimes donate to the council members. Waste Management has a contract for city trash service and donated $750 to Hitchcock.

When evaluating donations, Hitchcock said it is important to remember some donors, like Waste Management, that give to multiple candidates.

The company has also contributed to $1,150 Bob Johnson, $800 to Mounce, $500 to Larry Hansen and $300 to Phil Katzakian.

“There’s been a couple things that I haven’t supported. ... They give to everyone. I’ve never had any pressure from them,” Hitchcock said.

Local ties lead to donations

Sometimes candidates do not even need to go out and solicit donations, Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said. Many businesses and unions either interview or send out questionnaires to all of the candidates.

For example, a developer will ask how a candidate feels about growth, while Food 4 Less will ask questions about Walmart, a competitor that is planning to move in across the street, Mounce said.

Often, candidates will not know who the group or business has decided to support until the check shows up in the mail, Mounce said.

By volunteering or working for organizations, Mounce said she has received support.

She has helped with phone banking and other volunteer activities with the local operating engineers union because she has family and friends who belong to it. The union has supported her with $1,250 in monetary donations, and other donations of supplies and materials.

At times, council members do face scrutiny over donations. Even though she received $3,500 from Food 4 Less, Mounce she said she never talked with the business that has been opposed to Walmart.

She described the donation as “one that came back to haunt me.”

People were questioning that donation, she said, even before the Walmart decision, in which she voted against the retailer coming to town.

Mounce said her campaign manager, Gene Davenport, independently talked with Food 4 Less to get a donation for a spaghetti feed without her knowledge. She said he handed her the money, and then she bought all the food from the business.

“It was not in the usual format when I got out and solicited money from them,” she said. “To get criticism for something I didn’t actively go out and pursue, that was a bummer.”

Some of Mayor Phil Katzakian’s top donors are developers. He received $1,750 from Bennett Development and $1,000 from Tim Munson.

He did not solicit either of these large donations, but probably received them because his family has been involved in the development business. In the past, he said, the council has often had developers on it.

“Those people by and large know what’s going on and make good decisions. ... I would much rather have local people who I grew up with and worked with develop homes than a bigger development company,” Katzakian said.

People donate because they want to support a council member who is pro-business, Councilman Bob Johnson said. He received $4,600 for Board of Realtors Political Action Committee because he used to be a member, he said.

“I’ll make no bones about it,” Johnson said. “I think we need to grow as a community. To do that, business has to keep growing.”

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com or read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/city_buzz.

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