July 27 2016 12:39 AM

Trading votes is an illegal practice that could end political careers

Did Ricardo Flores, Lorie Zapf, Stephen Puetz and Marti Emerald get cozy in a vote-swap deal that fizzled?
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

Never swap horses crossing a stream.

—American proverb

San Diego City Councilmember Marti Emerald, prior to entering politics, spent the bulk of a 30-year television journalism career as the “Troubleshooter” for local station KGTV.

While her consumer advocacy won her numerous accolades over a 22-year span, she also earned a reputation as the Queen of the Ambush Interview.

“Emerald can’t resist sarcasm,” a Los Angeles Times story observed in 1990. “She stops just short of winking at the camera. When a subject says he can’t talk to her, she says, ‘Ah, gee, that’s too bad.’”

But last week, Emerald may have made arguably her most serious allegation to date—that the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer sought her vote in opposition to one election-reform ballot measure in exchange for drumming up Republican backing for her pet initiative, the so-called Firehouse Bond measure that would have raised property taxes to pay for a slew of new fire stations throughout the city.

In California, vote swapping is a serious crime, punishable under the state Penal Code by a prison term of two to four years and fines of $2,000 to $10,000. State law defines the violation as “any member of the legislative body of a city, county, city and county, school district, or other special district… who asks, receives, or agrees to receive, any bribe, upon any understanding that his or her official vote, opinion, judgment, or action shall be influenced thereby…”

The code goes on to note that even “offers or promises to give” a vote “either upon the same or another question” is a no-no. A 2006 state Senate bill added the prison-term language to the equation.

A KPBS story Thursday reported that “Emerald, a Democrat, said the mayor’s chief of staff, Stephen Puetz, had promised her six votes for the firehouse bond if she sided with Republicans in blocking a separate measure to change San Diego’s election rules” that would end the city practice of allowing candidates to win outright in a June primary by garnering more than 50 percent of the vote.

The story added that Emerald “refused the offer from the mayor’s office.” According to the story, a mayoral spokesman responded with a one-sentence denial: “The comment is untrue.”

Efforts to verify the story have proven difficult, to say the least. Spin Cycle reached out to Emerald’s chief of staff, Ricardo Flores, for details. In a brief interview Monday night, he said “a conversation” with the mayor’s office did occur in which “concerns” were raised about the election-change proposal from the Independent Voter Project, a group frequently scorned by local Republican Party leaders.

Local party Chairman Tony Krvaric, a Faulconer supporter, has taken to social media in the past to blast the organization as a “front group” for either corporate interests or labor, apparently depending on the narrative he’s pushing.

But Flores, who is running to replace his boss as the District 9 councilmember, said there was “never any let’s do this and that,” an apparent reference to the vote-swapping allegation. When pressed for details, Flores said he had to take an incoming call from his mother but promised to follow up.

The next day, Emerald’s office issued the following brief statement: “Unfortunately the Firehouse Bond did not pass. We will continue to work hard on behalf of all residents of the City of San Diego and District Nine.” No reference to the vote-swapping charge was made.

When asked if the councilmember was backing away from her allegation, an Emerald spokeswoman replied with an email that was filled with gobbledygook. A request to clarify went unanswered.

Paul Cooper, executive assistant city attorney, declined to comment on the accusation, but added “we would point out that offering to swap votes, if it occurred, could be a violation of the law.”

At Monday’s city council meeting, Spin Cycle ran into ol’ Mad-Dog, former councilman Jim Madaffer, now a city lobbyist. After some small talk, Spin asked if he recalled any attempts to trade votes while he served on the council.

“We used to trade votes for Padres tickets!” Madaffer replied—before admitting that he was joking. (Yep, sure miss covering that guy.)

It’s not hard to figure out why folks might be running away from this drama. One, Flores–facing a tough November election battle with environmental advocate Georgette Gomez–doesn’t need an issue like this cluttering up his campaign. And two, the penalties for vote swapping apply to all participants–and can end political careers.

As a 2007 article in Western City, the monthly magazine from the League of California Cities, pointed out, “To underscore the seriousness of the offense, vote-trading (like other forms of bribery and crimes against the legislative power) also subjects an official to forfeiture of office and forever being disqualified from holding office.”

What, you may ask, is the problem with vote trading if something good like more fire stations is the end result? Again, from Western City: “The reason that such approaches are problematic is that the legislative process is, by design, a group decision-making process. When one defers to one’s colleague, the voters lose the benefit of the group decision-making process; the process is undermined.”

In this case, Emerald actually cast her vote with Republicans to shoot down the election-change ballot measure, only to quickly say she had made a mistake and sought a revote. The measure then was approved for November along party lines.

Then last week, Republican Councilmember Lorie Zapf switched her previous yes vote on Emerald’s Firehouse Bond measure to a nay, thereby denying it the two-thirds majority council vote required to place it on the ballot.

Zapf told KPBS that she changed her vote after deciding an alternative proposal to build five fire stations in underserved District 4 and repair 25 “public safety assets that are not in good condition” using infrastructure funds from the recently approved Proposition H would be a better approach.

Considering all the public relations squirming on this latest drama, too bad we can’t call in the “Troubleshooter” to make sense of Swapgate. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another City Hall raid a la 2003’s Strippergate to find answers.

Spin Cycle appears every week. Write to johnl@sdcitybeat.com.

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