By Wendy Lack
Contra Costa Transportation Authority is under state investigation for possible campaign violations by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. The May 8 East Bay Times article, “State investigating CCTA,” only told part of the story.
Voters rejected Measure X, CCTA’s $3 billion countywide half-cent sales tax, last fall. During the campaign, CCTA officials may have violated California Fair Political Practices Commission laws. My observations prompted me to file a complaint with the FPPC, which enforces state campaign laws.
These are among the issues identified in my complaint:
Improper Campaigning by Public Officials
State law restricts political activities of local government employees. In addition, public agencies cannot take sides during a campaign once a measure is placed on the ballot.
After Measure X was placed on the ballot, CCTA Executive Director Randy Iwasaki and ex-officio CCTA board member Amy Worth spoke to the county Democratic Party Central Committee to secure its endorsement of Measure X.
CCTA records listed the meeting as an official presentation on behalf of the agency. Both Iwasaki and Worth directly urged the group’s endorsement of Measure X, as evidenced by a video recording submitted with my complaint.
Further, on various dates and during regular business hours, CCTA Assistant Executive Director Ross Chittenden exchanged emails with Yes on X political campaign officials and contractors regarding Measure X campaign activities.
Pay to Play Atmosphere
State law prohibits use of public money for campaigns and requires public contracts to be free from conflicts of interest. Attorney General Opinion No. 13-304, issued Jan. 26, 2016, says a school district “may not use public funds to hire a consultant to develop a strategy for building support” for a bond measure.
CCTA developed a Transportation Expenditure Plan at public expense for the purpose of building public and political support for Measure X. The TEP is an integral part of Measure X, as shown by the 31-page TEP summary in the November 2016 Voter Information Guide issued by the County Elections Office.
Before the election CCTA executed a series of contracts with Gray-Bowen-Scott consultants totaling $3.5 million — including more than $1.5 million in federal grant money — to conduct polling, public outreach and strategic planning to support the TEP/Measure X.
William Gray, of Gray-Bowen-Scott, was the principal officer of the Yes on X campaign. It’s tough to distinguish publicly-funded CCTA contract work from Yes on X campaign work because both were created at around the same time, for a common purpose.
For example, CCTA’s “TEP public education” website keepcontracostamoving.net was strikingly similar to the Yes on X campaign website getcontracostamoving.com.
In addition, the agency’s contract with Gray-Bowen-Scott identified a series of subcontractors, including Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter and Partners, which stood to benefit directly from Measure X.
CCTA officials could return to voters to ask for a new tax as early as next year. A new TEP is already circulating, in preparation for 2018 elections. A recent change in state law permits CCTA to place tax measures on the ballot directly, without approval by the Board of Supervisors.
FPPC findings in this case should be issued by spring 2018 – just in time for election season.
This article was first published in the East Bay Times (June 14, 2017)
The full FPPC complaint, with attachments, is available here.
A copy of the FPPC’s investigation letter, dated April 5, 2017, is available here.