Cypress could use election reform

Letter to the Editor

By David Burke

At recent Cypress City Council meetings, Council Members Frances Marquez and Jon Peat attacked each other based on the money behind their respective political campaigns. At the July 11, 2022 meeting, Marquez accused Peat and Mayor Paulo Morales of being bankrolled by Valley Vista Services, the city’s trash hauler. Valley Vista and its subsidiaries, along with a number of developers, funneled money through a group called Southern California Coalition of Businesses and Taxpayers (“SCCBT”), which has spent over $75,000 since 2014 to support Peat, Morales, and other former Cypress City Council Members.

Peat countered at the August 22, 2022 meeting by arguing that Marquez’s 2018 and 2020 campaigns were funded primarily by special interest groups outside of Cypress, including sixteen Political Action Committees (“PACs”) (many of which were labor unions), with only six percent of her funding coming from Cypress residents and businesses. Peat then asked if Marquez would recuse herself from voting on future projects that may benefit union labor groups.

Amidst the accusations, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, or to know how “normal” the campaign spending in Cypress is compared with elections in other cities. As a candidate for Cypress City Council in the November election, and the author of a report card that grades Orange County cities on the strength of their campaign finance laws, I believe it’s important to be transparent about whose money is behind our elected officials. We can also consider ideas to improve Cypress’s campaign finance system so that special interests have less influence over our elections.

One root of the problem is that winning elections—even local elections—can be very expensive. In Cypress the two winning candidates in the 2020 election—Anne Hertz and Frances Marquez—spent $43,799.00 and $46,672.36 on their campaigns. Such numbers are normal for winning candidates in cities around Cypress’s size. So where does all that money come from?

Most candidates who raise $10,000 or more do it either by self-funding, or by relying primarily on campaign contributions from individuals, businesses, or groups outside their city. This is because the percentage of Americans who donate $200 or more to political campaigns is very low—typically less than one half of one percent. It is extremely difficult for candidates to raise enough money to be competitive solely from residents in their city. The pattern of candidates self-funding or relying on support from outside their city holds true for Cypress’s current elected City Council Members.

In the 2020 election, Hertz self-funded approximately 87 percent of her campaign, with the rest of the money coming primarily from police and firefighter political action committees (PACs). Hertz raised just $375 from other Cypress residents. By contrast, Council Member Frances Marquez, who did not self-fund, got $2,850 from Cypress residents, but that only accounted for about six percent of her contributions. The other 94 percent came primarily from individuals living in other cities, PACs, or elected officials such as Marquez’s former employer Congressman Alan Lowenthal, who contributed $6,000.

The money behind Mayor Paulo Morales and Council Member Jon Peat is more complicated because in addition to campaign contributions, Morales and Peat received significant support in the form of the independent expenditures, which is money used to support a candidate that isn’t given directly to their campaign. Typically, organizations use independent expenditures to send out mailers in support of a candidate, but are not allowed to coordinate with that candidate about its content. In Cypress, most of the independent expenditures in recent elections have been funded by Valley Vista and its subsidiaries, or the developer Christo Bardis, through the Southern California Coalition of Businesses and Taxpayers (SCCBT).

For example, from 2014 to 2019 Mayor Morales raised $3,450 from individuals and businesses in Cypress. But the majority of his contributions came from the Cypress Police Officers PAC ($13,000) and SCCBT ($10,000). He also benefited from another $15,546.52 that SCCBT spent to support his campaign through independent expenditures. During the same time period Council Member Peat self-funded about 90 percent of his campaign contributions, but benefited greatly from $35,577.87 that SCCBT spent to support his campaigns through independent expenditures.

Such contributions and expenditures raise valid concerns about some of our City Council’s decisions. For example, after signing a ten-year agreement with Valley Vista that was to run from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2025, the City Council has twice voted to modify the contract in Valley Vista’s favor. On August 28, 2017 the City Council voted 3 to 1, with one abstention, to authorize Valley Vista to raise its prices while reducing the level of services provided, and extended the contract two additional years.

On November 22, 2021 the City Council voted 4 to 1 for another round of changes to the contract that included a 32 percent increase in the price of residential trash service, higher annual Consumer Price Index-based rate adjustments, and a ten-year contract extension until June 30, 2037. The increases were purportedly necessary so that Valley Vista could comply with the state’s new organics recycling requirements, which surely do impose an additional cost. But residents in many other Orange County cities were not subjected to similar increases.

Valley Vista’s track record of spending money to influence Cypress’s elections, and the City Council’s history of granting rate increases and contract extensions to Valley Vista does not seem like a coincidence. Therein lies the problem. When elected officials are backed heavily by developers, trash haulers, or labor groups, it raises doubts about how objective those Council Members can be when casting votes affecting those entities.

Fortunately, some reforms can help protect Cypress’s City Council from undue influence by special interests. First, we can enact campaign contribution limits in the $500 to $1,000 range like many other cities have, as opposed to the state-set $4,900 limit that is currently in place. Strong contribution limits will make it more difficult for special interests to have outsized influence. Second, we can improve the transparency around campaign contributions and independent expenditures by posting all of the relevant Fair Political Practices Commission forms dating back four election cycles on the city’s official website, which the City Council is currently considering. Third, we can also strengthen conflict of interest policies such that council members who received a certain level of support in the form of campaign contributions or independent expenditures must recuse themselves from votes affecting those entities. Special interests will be much less likely to spend money in Cypress elections if they know that council members would be prohibited from voting on the matters they’re trying to influence.

Supporting such reforms is one of the reasons I decided to run for Cypress City Council. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, I think we all want elections in which candidates can succeed without spending $40,000 of their own money, or depending heavily on special interest groups. Enacting campaign contribution limits, improving transparency, and strengthening conflict of interest policies will help ensure that our representatives always put the interests of Cypress residents above all else.

Note: David Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a civic engagement nonprofit and is currently a candidate for the City Council in Cypress.