San Jose’s campaign watchdog commission at serious risk
Courtesy of Andy Nguyen

San Jose’s campaign watchdog commission is at serious risk of dissolving after city leaders say no one has applied to fill four vacancies on the panel.

The city is scrambling to find commissioners in the next few weeks or be forced to turn over local election law enforcement to the state FPPC, which means no local body will investigate ethics complaints and comes at a higher cost to taxpayers.

“It’s imperative that we get people to apply,” said City Clerk Toni Taber. “And I need more applications than positions because we need to have choices.”

The city’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices, formerly the Ethics Commission, is one of the most powerful at City Hall. The five-member panel oversees government transparency policies, monitors compliance with campaign finance and election laws and investigates allegations of violations.

The commission also reviews campaign, lobbying and government ethics ordinances and recommends updates to policies.

There are four upcoming vacancies on the commission, Taber said, and only one person has applied — current chair Adrian Gonzales, who applied for reappointment. Two other commissioners, Madhavee Vemulapalli and Amarpal Randhawa, are not seeking reappointment, and there’s one vacancy.

The lack of quorum forced city officials to cancel the commission’s January meeting and end two other meetings early. A proposed policy to move San Jose city elections to gubernatorial years has been shelved for several months because of the shortage. This is the first time San Jose has had this many vacancies on a commission, Taber said, and zero new applications.

Taber is worried about handing over the commission’s local regulatory duties to the state.

“If we can’t get people to apply, and we go to the state FPPC and ask them to take over, it will be more expensive to the city because we will have to pay them for investigations,” Taber said. “And we lose local control. I just think local people should be in charge of their local rules.”

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga told San José Spotlight that recent legislation allows the state to contract with cities to oversee enforcement of local policies, in addition to state laws. San Bernardino County and the city of Sacramento have signed such contracts, Wierenga said, and “it’s working.”

“Those are legitimate concerns (from Taber) in lieu of nothing else being done,” Wierenga said. “But in terms of us contracting with cities and counties to do enforcement of campaign finance laws at the local level, we just signed a contract with Sacramento and it’s working. They wouldn’t sign a contract if they didn’t think we could do an adequate job. San Bernardino County has expressed its satisfaction and pleasure of the job we are doing there.”

The county pays FPPC about $65,000 to enforce local laws, Wierenga added.

The commission a few years ago came under fire for slapping ex-Councilman Manh Nguyen with a $10,000 fine and expanding an investigation to include dozens of elected officials who inadvertently made similar mistakes on campaign filings. The city’s reporting rules varied from the state, prompting the errors, and the commission has since sought to align local policies with state laws.

Anyone who is a San Jose resident can apply for the commission by visiting this website.

Contact Ramona at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow her @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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