Despite attempts to keep the focus on dark money, a town hall meeting Monday night continually strayed into discussing Measure C, a ballot initiative to split Santa Clara into three districts.
During the City’s first town hall meeting — something that will now be a monthly event — Santa Clara City Clerk Hosam Haggag dispensed information about dark money.
“Dark money is when the individuals or organizations, that are contributing funds toward influencing a political outcome, do not disclose the origin of those funds,” Haggag said. “If you want to participate in our local elections, our local campaigns, you have to disclose who you are.”
Although Haggag repeatedly told those in attendance, watching the livestream and participating via telephone that the town hall was not geared toward discussing Measure C, many touched on the topic anyway.
Measure C would split the City into three districts as opposed to the six districts ordered by a judge in the wake of the City losing a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit. That lawsuit alleged the City’s at-large system had a racial bias.
Many of the questions — mostly from people who did not identify themselves or only gave their first name — touched on Measure C since a violation of the City’s dark money ordinance relating to the Measure is what prompted the town hall.
In 2018, Santa Clara put in place, in Hagagg’s words, a “first-of-its-kind” ordinance that requires donors to disclose contributions to local political initiatives exceeding $100. Federal requirements see the limit at $50,000.
Last month, Haggag sent a letter to the 49ers for violating the ordinance. That violation came when the team did not disclose $17,000 it spent to conduct a telephone poll that, Haggag said, was clearly trying to sway voters to vote against Measure C.
“They did not disclose. They were not transparent. They were not honest. They were not following the law about disclosing their political campaign activity, and they only did so after they were caught and sent the violation notice,” he said. “It is called dark money because you can’t see it. You don’t know it is there.”
However, just days after Haggag’s letter, the contribution was disclosed in a No on C official campaign reporting form. The City said they would still file a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
The City’s dark money ordinance sets “severe” penalties for those in violation, Haggag added. Those penalties include being convicted of a misdemeanor and civil action by any city resident. Further, an elected official who benefitted from a contribution could be exempt from voting on a matter for which the contributor has a financial interest; the violation could also breach any contract with the City.
The ordinance applies to monetary donations but also to in-kind contributions, i.e., donating time or other services. However, Haggag said, such things are editorials for newspapers do not fall under the purview of the ordinance.
Still, a couple people contested whether what Haggag called “educational” and “informational” material on Measure C was unbiased.
Wesley Mukoyama, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and failed mayoral candidate Anthony Becker challenged the City’s neutrality on Measure C. Mukoyama repeatedly interrupted Haggag’s explanations, shouting from his seat in the audience.
Whether such activity is designed to sway voters’ opinions is determined as part of the investigation, but he did not provide concrete details on how such determinations are made.
The election is Tuesday, March 3. More information about the City’s dark money ordinance, including the requirements for filing, can be found on the City’s website under the City Clerk tab.