A backer of the campaign to pass three city tax measures has charged two of Berkeley’s anti-tax groups with violating city election law.
Malcolm Burnstein, who two years ago served as treasurer for Tom Bates’ campaign for mayor, filed charges Friday against the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA) and Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes (BASTA).
His complaint alleges that BASTA twice failed to submit its list of contributions and expenses before city deadlines and that CNA, a registered nonprofit for over 30 years, was required to register as a political committee and file contribution and expenditure reports before sending out newsletters that took stands opposing the tax measures.
It charges that the group is “nothing more than a decidedly partisan hack committee acting to defeat certain measures.”
The complaints will be heard Wednesday at a special meeting of the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission (FCPC). If the commission substantiates the charges against BASTA, the group could be fined. Even if CNA escapes a monetary penalty, it could be made to register as a political committee for future elections.
In the past year, relations between neighborhood associations and city political leaders have grown increasingly bitter over proposed taxes to help plug the city’s budget deficit.
“Obviously this is an attempt to intimidate the opposition,” said CNA President Laurie Bright of Burnstein’s complaints.
CNA, as a non-profit educational group, is only allowed to take positions on ballot measures. This November, as it has in prior elections, the group is opposing all four new city taxes as well as a school district tax.
Burnstein argues that the group’s newsletter, which carried its endorsements on the measures and was mailed to approximately 1,000 homes, rendered the group a political organization falling under the Berkeley Election Reform Act.
“It’s an interesting question that I think the commission should discuss,” Burnstein said.
Berkeley election law requires organizations that lobby on behalf of a campaign to file contributions and expenditures and list individual donations greater than $50. The filings are required so residents know which individuals and interests are supporting candidates and ballot measures.
CNA, comprised of leaders of city neighborhood organizations, charges $30 for a subscription to its newsletter, which is printed five times annually and is the only newsletter published by private residents.
Bright said that Berkeley election law specifically exempts subscription mail like the group’s newsletter.
Bright, who received a copy of Burnstein’s complaint Monday morning, had to provide city election officials with a written reply by Monday afternoon and prepare for the hearing on Wednesday.
“The fact that the city isn’t giving us any time to adequately respond to this is outrageous and ridiculous,” he said.
Commission policy is to address all complaints before the election, said Assistant City Attorney Prasanna Rasiah.
BASTA, which was formed this summer to fight the four city tax measures and a measure to publicly fund city elections on the November ballot, failed to make campaign filings for two consecutive filing periods, Oct. 5 and Oct. 21, according the city clerk’s office.
BASTA Assistant Treasurer Jim Hultman said he mailed the filings to the city clerk, and hadn’t been alerted that they had not been received until hearing from the city on Friday. Hultman, who chose not to send the filings via certified mail, has no record of the packages being delivered.
Although he has no proof, he said he suspected that officials backing the tax proposals intercepted the mail before it reached the city clerk’s office.
“I find it hard to believe that the postal service would screw up two consecutive deliveries,” he said.
According to reports provided Friday by the group, BASTA has raised $6,480, nearly one-third of which has come from the Berkeley Property Owners Association. Other contributors include Edwin Quenzel, who donated $1,000, and City Council candidate Barbara Gilbert, who donated $200.
Burnstein filed the complaint against BASTA on behalf of the Measure J, K and L Committee and filed against CNA on behalf of the Committee for Measure L. Measure J is a proposed utility tax hike, Measure K is a proposed increase to the tax on property transfers and Measure L is a parcel tax to pay for library service.
BASTA was not the only campaign to miss the filing deadline this year. For the Oct. 21 filing, City Council candidate Laura Menard filed late and Maudelle Shirek had not filed as of Monday. For the previous deadline, City Council candidate Sharon Kidd and school board candidate Merrilie Mitchell also filed late.