When he announced on the Vanguard his run for city council, Paul Boylan, among other things, told us that he wouldn’t be soliciting campaign donations – although he would accept them if someone offered them.
Recently, when the Enterprise ran his story, he told them, “Asking for those things creates a quid pro quo.” He added, “I want to assure people that if they elect me, I will go into that chair owing nothing to anybody.”
Columnist Bob Dunning quickly scoffed at this, writing that it was “an admirable position, to be sure, but one that’s relatively meaningless in Davis city politics, where most contributions are so small that it’s hard to imagine any one of our five council members are beholden to anyone … ‘Hey, I gave you 50 bucks, you owe me.’ …”
Mr. Dunning is dead wrong here, and no one knows this better than Paul Boylan himself. In the 2008 Davis City Council Election, Don Saylor and Stephen Souza received around $4000 in $100 checks from the firefighters, who each gave individually on the same day.
In June of 2008, the Yolo County Grand Jury came out with a report citing, among other things, a hostile work place in the fire station along with retaliation for critics of the fire chief and union. The city was forced to utilize Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson to conduct a follow-up investigation, which he completed three months later.
In December of 2008, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza, along with Mayor Ruth Asmundson who had the same campaign contribution treatment in 2006, voted 3-2 (Lamar Heystek and Sue Greenwald dissenting) to not have the city council read the full fire report from Bob Aaronson.
Both Stephen Souza and Don Saylor were adamant that the council not read the full report.
“Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them,” Don Saylor stated. “I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time.”
Stephen Souza would add, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”
In a June 2013 column in the Enterprise, Rich Rifkin wrote, “Theirs was never a vote of conscience. It was not a vote of practical or legal merit. It was not due to precedent. The vote was cast because those members of the Davis City Council had been influenced by all the money and favors Local 3494 had given them to win office.”
The decision by the council in late 2008 had consequences. The council never learned of the extent of the corruption by either fire chief Rose Conroy or Union President Bobby Weist.
Ironically, it was Paul Boylan, as an attorney representing the Vanguard, who filed two lawsuits in 2012 and 2013 to finally get all of the records released. Mr. Boylan knows from personal experience that money corrupts.
One hundred dollars may not sound like a lot and it isn’t. But the $100 limitation is only on individual contributions. The firefighters were among the first groups to learn that, if they bundled their contributions from 40 or so members, they not only would maximize their influence, they could have disproportionate impact over those who more or less played by the rules.
Others have tried this game too – often developers or large commercial interests will spread $100 across family members and employees to help get their favored candidates elected.
The social science research is mixed on what the effect is. After all, it is plausible that the exertion of influence is not that large monied interests are getting people to change their vote, but rather that they are influencing the system by getting large monied interests elected in the first place.
There is another and perhaps more concerning runaround of the campaign limitations at work here, for those candidates who are seeking higher office.
Last year, the Davis City Council was asked to vote on a CFD (Community Facilities District) for the Cannery. The Vanguard last May noted that Dan Wolk, as candidate for State Assembly back in 2014, received a $4100 contribution from The New Home Company itself, $1500 from Kevin Carson, The New Home Company President, and $1500 from Ashley Feeney, The New Home Company Vice President. He also received $1500 from George Phillips, who was the consultant on the Cannery Project.
Again, there was nothing legally improper about these contributions, which were received within a day of each other. Second, at the time these contributions were made, the Cannery had just been approved and Dan Wolk seemed more likely than not to win an Assembly seat.
Obviously, they were not made in some sort of anticipation of the CFD vote – the CFD wasn’t even on the radar screen at the time and there was no belief, even if it were, that Dan Wolk would be on the city council.
Dan Wolk has been fairly consistent on the Cannery, at least since his first meeting on the subject – he has been supportive of the need for new housing for families in Davis.
He sang the praises of the Cannery at the State of the City Address in January, which he said “reestablishes Davis as a leader in innovative housing.” The mayor said that we have two demographical issues in Davis – the cohort of those between 25 and 45 years old, “that demographic is shrinking. That really is concerning for the future of our city.”
At the same time, one of the biggest concerns that “good government” people have is the corrupting influence of money in the system. Whether The New Home Company actually bought influence with Mr. Wolk, let alone his vote, seems questionable. But the average citizen doesn’t have the access to that kind of money.
The typical citizen does not have $8600 to give from four different entities.
Our concern is there, however. More serious is the implication that Dan Wolk may have received threats from the beverage industry in early December, threats that they would fund his opponents if he persisted in pushing for a soda tax.
The mayor went from supportive of the soda tax in early December to opposed to it ten days later.
The proposition of running for higher office while still on the council is a huge factor that has been unexplored. First, it sets up the prospect of currying favors to interests such as organized labor (fire among others) that will help to finance and to staff campaign efforts.
Second, instead of limiting contributions to $100, the monied interests can push through up to $4100 at a time. So for Dan Wolk, in this election cycle, he received another $5000 from New Homes and the Cannery.
He also received $500 from Ramco, $500 from Nishi, $500 from Tyler Shilling (who is tied to the MRIC development), and that’s just based on a surface scan of his reported contributions. While none of this is prodigious money that’s going to sway his vote, we are left with the unpleasant potential, at least, that local public policy could be framed in ways more to benefit a run for higher office than for the benefit of the local community.
We have constructed laws locally to reduce that influence, and yet sophisticated interest groups have found ways to circumvent that. But that pales in comparison to the ability for these interests to help bankroll a run for higher office, where they are no longer bound by the $100 campaign limitations.
One big defense against this influence into our local politics is to elect people who are not using the council as a stepping stone. On the other hand, it may be hard to identify who is using the office as a stepping stone and who is not.
While some have suggested a publicly funded campaign system, others want more limitations. Legal interpretations of money as speech aside, it is my general observation (as we have seen locally) that politicians and their backers will find a way around even stringent laws.
At the end of the day, the biggest defense around this type of influence may be instant reporting requirements. Instead of learning February 1 about a contribution from July, what if the campaign had to report all contributions in real time, as they came in? It’s not a perfect defense, but at least it gives us a chance to scrutinize the money as it comes in rather than months after the fact.
The problem, however, is that all actions are scrutinized in an electoral context. This week Mayor Dan Wolk, who has been currying favors with the local firefighters’ union for several years, pushed for the city to do a fire department merger study. In 2013, Dan Wolk, while supporting impasse and some fire reforms, opposed staffing cuts and flipped on shared management – an issue that his mother, among other public officials, pressured the city about, on behalf of the firefighters’ union.
The union still is trying to wrest control of the fire services, which is currently headed by UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht. The question we are left with as citizens is whether this represents a move that is in the best interest of the citizens, or whether the mayor is still trying to get campaign support from the powerful union.
—David M. Greenwald reporting