Four Long Beach residents file sworn complaint against City

Complainants say officials violated Political Reform Act in campaigning for Measure M

Courtesy Diana Lejins
An email blast (the top of which is shown here) from 3rd District Councilmember Suzie Price– sent from the email address [email protected] and with a subject line of “Reminder to Support Measure M on June 5th”– is one of several communications from Long Beach officials that are at the center of a sworn complaint by four residents who allege that elected individuals violated the Political Reform Act by using taxpayer money to send out several pieces that were persuasive rather than merely informational, in order to get voters to approve Measure M. Although Price’s email does not feature her official city letterhead and was not sent from her government email address, it does identify her as 3rd District Councilwoman Suzie Price.

The controversy surrounding a divisive city charter amendment– that Long Beach voters approved by a 7.5-percent margin in June– will continue on, now that four residents, including a former city councilmember, have filed a formal complaint with the State’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

Tom Stout, Diana Lejins, Joe Weinstein and former 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske are alleging that the City of Long Beach violated the Political Reform Act by spending public funds to campaign for the passage of Measure M, an amendment that, according to city officials, explicitly authorizes and affirms the transfer of surplus City utility revenues to the City’s general fund to support services such as police, fire and 9-1-1 paramedic and other general government services, with a cap of 12 percent of each utility’s annual gross revenue.

Last month, Measure M passed with 35,651 votes (53.76 percent of voters) approving it and 30,659 (46.24 percent) voting against it.

In the months leading up to the June 5 election, city officials put substantial effort into assuring residents that Measure M would not be a tax increase, but not everyone was convinced. At events throughout the city last spring, Measure M protesters showed up with signs and flyers attempting to discourage voters from approving the measure that they claimed was a disguised tax increase.

Nevertheless, the measure was approved, after which Stout, Lejins, Weinstein and Schipske submitted a sworn complaint with the commission, on July 11.

“Today, we have filed a sworn complaint with the FPPC alleging that the City of Long Beach, through the mayor and city council, have violated the Political Reform Act by using taxpayer money– government resources– to send out several direct-mail pieces that were clearly not ‘informational’ but campaign materials,” reads the press release Schipske issued. “We also believe that the mayor and several councilmembers utilized their city-paid cellphones and computers to send out misleading messages urging constituents to vote for Measure M. These messages told constituents: that Measure M was ‘not a tax,’ when in fact it is; that the transfers would be taken only from ‘surplus,’ which is false; and that constituent utility rates would not be increased, which is also false, as they are being currently raised because of Measure M.”

Part of the group’s complaint is that state law only allows the City to spend public money to provide “informational” materials and that those must be in the “style, tone and timing” that make them indeed informational and not forms of advocacy.

The Signal Tribune gained access to several of the aforementioned mailers, including the “Common Questions and Answers on Measure M” that the City mailed out and published on its website. Each of the documents does indeed indicate that it was being distributed to provide information to voters and not to attempt to persuade them to vote for the measure. “Mailing provided for informational purposes to describe the practical effects of Measure M,” the mailers state. “This information sheet does not advocate a yes or no vote on the measure.”

However, the four complainants are taking issue with the “style” of the direct-mail pieces because they were not created and issued in the “regular” way the City communicates information with voters, according to Schipske.

“The City utilized a political consultant who targeted the mailers only to specific voters instead of all voters in the city,” Schipske’s press release states. “There are currently 259,839 registered voters, or 147,579 households, in Long Beach. The city-paid mail pieces were only sent to a targeted 63,741 households, or 43 percent. If these mailers were truly ‘informational,’ they would have been sent to all registered voters. These were campaign pieces.”
The four also stressed in their complaint that the “tone and timing” of the pieces also strongly underscored their campaign-type nature because the mail pieces omitted the facts that Measure M is indeed a tax and that utility rates would be raised to pay for the transfer of funds from the utilities. The complainants also say the direct-mail pieces used alarmist tactics in threatening cuts to public safety and infrastructure if voters did not pass the measure, when, in fact, no council action had been taken to identify specific cuts related to the failure to pass Measure M, according to Schipske.

“Most egregious is the timing of these materials to coincide with mailings from the Mayor’s Committee to Support the Utility Transfer,” Schipske’s press release claims. “The City’s mailers omitted the fact that Measure M is a tax while the mayor’s mailers stated: ‘Measure M is NOT a tax increase.’ The message to the voters was orchestrated to urge passage of Measure M.”

The four also contend that the City misled voters to believe that the transfer would be “of surplus City utility revenues,” when in fact the measure would allow a transfer based upon a percentage of the utility’s annual gross revenues, according to Schipske’s press release.

Furthermore, the complainants say the City failed to disclose that the measure allows the city council and Water Commission “to approve water, sewer and gas rates in an amount sufficient to recover the costs of operating each utility, including council/board-approved utility revenue transfers to the general fund.”

“That fact alone contradicts the direct-mail piece, which begins on side 2 with a statement that the measure would ‘explicitly authorize and affirm the transfer of surplus City utility revenues,’” according to the complaint. “Within less than a month after passage, the Water Commission sent a ‘notice of hearing’ that water utility rates were being raised 7.2 percent as a result of ‘Long Beach voters approved Measure M authorizing continuing utility revenue transfer to the General Funds.’”

The complaint further states that Mayor Robert Garcia and councilmembers Suzie Price, Rex Richardson and Dee Andrews violated the Political Reform Act by sending emails, texts and tweets to voters on computers and cell phones paid for at government expense, with messages advocating for passage of the measure and specifically misleading voters with statements that the measure “is not a tax,” that the transfers would only be on “surplus funds, ” and that the measure “would not raise your utility rates.”

The complainants said they sent a letter to the Long Beach City Attorney’s office requesting that those individuals be directed to stop and were informed that a privileged letter was issued by the city attorney on the matter. However, according to Schipske’s press release, those messages were forwarded to others by voters using social media.

City officials this week seemed reluctant to speak on the matter. The Signal Tribune Tuesday morning sent emailed requests for statements to the official city email addresses of all nine council district offices, the mayor’s office, the city attorney’s office and the city manager’s office. Only two of those offices responded. Jennifer Kumiyama, office manager and scheduler for 1st District Lena Gonzalez’s office, emailed back to request the deadline for a response from the councilmember and indicated she would attempt to get a statement from her. However, no reply from that office had been received by deadline Thursday afternoon. Fourth District Councilmember Daryl Supernaw emailed directly but indicated he would prefer not to respond, since he is not among those mentioned by name in the complaint.

One city official who was indeed eager to respond was Signal Hill Vice Mayor Larry Forester.

In a phone interview Thursday morning, Forester said he is “pissed” that the City of Long Beach will now be able to generate money for its own general fund through the transfer of surplus utility revenues that his city’s residents also pay into.

“My staff talked to Long Beach’s staff and were told there is nothing they can do about it,” Forester said. “Well, I said to my staff, ‘Look, we’re paying for Long Beach gas, so that same excess charge that’s being slushed over to their general fund, which is ‘a pipeline charge,’ we’re not getting any rebate on it.’”

In an emailed response to the Signal Tribune Thursday, Signal Hill City Manager Charlie Honeycutt clarified the situation regarding his city’s access to utilities.

“Long Beach Gas and Oil is the natural-gas utility provider in Signal Hill. Potable-water service is provided by the Signal Hill Water Department,” Honeycutt wrote. “Signal Hill customers do not pay the utility user tax that is charged to Long Beach customers by Long Beach Gas and Oil. The Signal Hill Water Department does not charge a utility users tax. The City [of Signal Hill] has discussed the Measure M matter with Long Beach and will continue to have those discussions.”

As for Long Beach residents, Lejins, in a phone interview Thursday morning, said that compounding their problem is the fact that many in her city did not receive the City’s informational mailers until after the election.

“I personally had to go down to City Hall to get it,” she said. “[Voters] were inundated with all this campaign material but never even saw the ‘against’ arguments until after it was too late. Many of them didn’t get it until after the election or after they had sent in their mail-in ballots. So, they weren’t privy to any argument against it.”

When asked how she knows about that issue, Lejins said that residents had complained about it on social media and had told her in person and through emails.
“Garcia, Price, Andrews and some others basically kept saying, over and over, ‘this is not a tax,’” Lejins said. “But it is a tax! It’s a little game they’re playing. What they’re saying is, ‘It’s not a tax per se,’ but what they do is they raise the rate of what you get. So, they’re raising the rates, because they say they don’t have enough money, but that rate that they raise will go straight to the general fund.”

Lejins said the City is raising utility rates so that there will indeed be a surplus to go into the general fund.

“We just got a notice,” she said, “saying they are going to raise the rates.”