As Santa Clarans prepare to go to the ballot box for a second time to vote on how to re-district the city for future elections, city officials can’t account for work done on taxpayers’ dime the last time residents voted on the matter.
When it comes to campaigns — whether for a candidate or ballot measure — it’s critical to keep track of what work is being paid for with taxpayer dollars because state laws prohibit spending public funds on anything that advocates for a “yes” or “no” vote, or otherwise shows a bias toward one outcome. Purely informational documents, however, are fair game for city employees and contractors paid with public dollars.
Santa Clara paid PR firm Singer Associates over several months in 2018 to draft Measure A press releases and other materials, including a set of “talking points” that were approved by Singer Associates the day before votes were cast on the measure, according to billing statements. But officials couldn’t produce documentation of the work the agency did, emails related to the work or recall what the talking points said.
The Fair Political Practices Commission, which oversees and enforces the rules around campaign financing, hasn’t looked into spending on the ballot measure in Santa Clara. But the agency takes spending for campaigns seriously, said Richard Miadich, chair of the FPPC.
“When public officials unlawfully use taxpayer dollars for political purposes it greatly diminishes the public’s trust in government,” he said in a statement. “That is why the FPPC considers the misuse of public funds among the most serious types of violations, and why our enforcement staff will continue prosecuting those types of cases to the fullest extent of our authority.”
Measure A, which failed with 52 percent of voters against it, would have split the city into two districts instead of the current at-large system, where each resident can vote for each City Council candidate. The measure was favored by Mayor Lisa Gillmor and allies Councilmember Teresa O’Neill and Hosam Haggag, who served on the committee that recommended the two-district option, and is now Santa Clara’s City Clerk.
The 2018 ballot initiative cost taxpayers about $190,000, and billing statements show Singer Associates billed the city on at least four occasions for work related to the measure.
Work outlined in those billing statements, including the “talking points,” should be available to the public, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit focused on free speech and government transparency.
“That’s exactly the kind of document that the public should be able to see and that should be preserved and produced under the Public Records Act law,” he said.
Singer Associates currently has two contracts valued at a combined $200,000 for a wide range of communications and PR work for the city that expire in June. The city is considering negotiating another contract for communications work, according to recent city documents.
The existing agreements were mired in controversy as this news organization found in September the city failed to follow its own code when bidding for the lucrative contracts.
In early May 2018, Singer Associates also billed the city for work on press releases before a document titled “Two Districts — One Santa Clara” was published. That release stated “Santa Clara’s community-initiated ‘Measure A’ gives voters more say, increases diversity, and geographic inclusion.”
City officials couldn’t provide documentation to show whether Singer Associates directly contributed to the release, but said communications work related to Measure A was “a collaborative effort between communications experts, ballot measure experts and city staff” who created information for the city’s website. They could not say who worked on what, or provide specific materials requested.
Drafts and other deleted documents
San José Spotlight also requested emails between Singer Associates employees and former Community Relations Manager Jennifer Yamaguma and City Manager Deanna Santana around the time the work was performed.
City officials said those emails have been deleted, though the request was made about 15 months after the work was performed and billed.
Santa Clara’s current record retention policy allows the city to withhold from the public any documents considered a “draft” — rather than a final version — and to destroy emails after 90 days. Some legal experts say state law suggests city emails should be kept for longer, though Snyder admits there are some gray areas in the rules.
“There’s a number of agencies that are routinely destroying emails on a short time frame, and 90 days is not all that uncommon, unfortunately,” he said. “We believe it is not appropriate to destroy emails after 90 days, but this is an issue that is probably going to have to be litigated before a court.”
As for the Measure A “talking points” approved by Singer Associates on June 4, officials could only guess why they disappeared.
“The ‘talking points’ document was likely a draft that was subsumed into the final press release,” said Simrat Dhadli, deputy city clerk, in an email.
But that timeline doesn’t add up because the election was the next day, and any press releases about Measure A or city redistricting didn’t come out until weeks later — on June 27.
That June 27 release announced the June 6 decision by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ordering the city be split into six districts for future elections.
So the public may never know what those talking points were — despite being paid for by a public contract — and whether they violated state law or how they were used a day before ballots were cast on the measure.
Singer Associates President Sam Singer declined to provide documents or information related to the firm’s work on Measure A materials to San José Spotlight.
“I wish I could be helpful here, but it is the responsibility of the city to respond to public record requests,” he said in an email. “My apologies for not being able to assist here.”
Indeed, Singer is not obligated to share such information with the public, though work and materials produced are typically considered public information when paid for with taxpayer money.
Another ballot measure
Now, Santa Clara is preparing to go back to the ballot for another measure that would split the city into three districts — a controversial proposal that has divided the council and residents.
What role Singer Associates — or other public relations firms — will play in the messaging remains to be seen, but it may continue to be difficult to track without changes to the city’s records retention policy.
San José Spotlight’s public records requests come after a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury in June released a scathing report about the city’s compliance with the California Public Records Act.
The 18-page Civil Grand Jury report outlines a disorganized internal record keeping system at Santa Clara City Hall. The group ultimately gave up its initial investigation into the city’s procurement practices for contracts because the jurors claimed they could not get the documents they requested.
Santa Clara officials adamantly refuted the findings of the report and Santana, the city manager, claimed in a report and at a public council meeting last year that the grand jury had cleared the city of any wrongdoing in its initial investigation — though the grand jury report states that investigation was not completed.
Contact Janice Bitters at email@example.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.