In the News

State finds second ethics violation for city of Santa Cruz: Desalination mailer included letter signed by elected officials

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/23/11

SANTA CRUZ -- For the second time in a month, a state agency has found local officials violated ethics rules by using a letter from elected officials inside politically charged mailers.

The Fair Political Practices Commission has determined a newsletter produced by the city's water department and its partner in a proposed desalination plant, the Soquel Creek Water District, violated rules governing the use of public funds. The mailing to customers promoting the controversial project contained a letter signed by elected officers from both agencies.

However, the commission chose not to take further action because the April mailing was published months before the city was warned in July about a similar misstep involving a different mailer.

"We looked at the circumstances and, due to the similarities of the prior incident, determined we were comfortable issuing one letter rather than opening a separate case," said Roman Porter of Fair Political Practices Commission.

The commission issued a warning to the city July 12 about a mailer billed as an annual report and sent to 24,000 residences in late June. Touting the city's achievements during the past year, the mailer featured a letter signed by Mayor Ryan Coonerty.

A council watchdog filed the complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission. No fine was issued because the city self-reported the violation and the mayor isn't eligible to run for re-election.

In the most recent case, the city and Soquel Creek Water District's newsletter reproduced a letter by Vice Mayor Don Lane and district board member Dan Kriege originally written for publication in a local newspaper. The piece challenges critics of ocean desalination who have said the two agencies aren't thoroughly exploring alternatives.

After news broke in July of the commission's findings regarding the mayor's letter, desalination opponent Paul Gratz of Santa Cruz filed a complaint with the commission about the April newsletter. He views the piece and other desalination-related newsletters and web updates from the city and district as part of a larger effort to promote the plant rather than research it in an unbiased manner.

"I'm still perplexed," he said about the decision to lump the two cases. "I'm going to look into this further."

The city's water director, Bill Kocher, said he signed off on the newsletter, noting that Lane and Kriege had no knowledge their letter would be used. Once a potential violation was brought to the city's attention, the city also reported it to the commission.

"I was fully aware their names were on it, and I'm going to take responsibility for it," Kocher said.

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