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Accusations, Lawsuits Fuel Albany City Council Race

By Richard Brenneman
Friday October 27, 2006

A lawsuit charging illegal campaign practices, allegations of illegal contributions and outright lies, and an apology for stealing campaign literature? 

No, it’s not GOP politics à la Karl Rove in the heart of the Bible Belt. It’s Democratic city candidates squaring off against each other in Albany. 

The latest and potentially most serious broadside fired in an unusually heated race came Wednesday in a lawsuit charging candidate Caryl O’Keefe and her supporters with violations of city and state election laws. 

The action, filed Wednesday in Alameda County Superior Court, alleges that O’Keefe, her spouse Alan Riffer and the organization Concerned Albany Neighbors (CAN) violated both the city’s Campaign Reform Act of 1996 and the California Political Reform Act of 1974. 

Alan Riffer, CAN’s assistant treasurer and the signer of the group’s Oct. 5 campaign finance report, was a 2004 council candidate himself. He is also one of the six members of O’Keefe’s campaign committee. 

CAN has distributed flyers condemning candidates Marge Atkinson and Joanne Wile, who are running a joint campaign under the Save Our Shoreline (SOS) umbrella, while praising the positions of O’Keefe and Francesco Papalia, the fourth of the quartet of candidates running for two at-large seats. 

The Albany campaign law bars all contributions to candidates from organizations, and the suit charges that CAN’s two mailings and other expenditures are, in fact, contributions to O’Keefe and should have been reported as such. 

The action, filed by attorney Lowell Finley, an Albany resident who is widely known as an electoral law specialist, seeks an injunction banning CAN from making in-kind contributions to O’Keefe and her campaign committee and banning O’Keefe and her committee from taking any such contributions.  

The action asks CAN and its officers to pay the city three times the amount of any illegal contributions made to O’Keefe and a similar assessment from O’Keefe for any illegal contributions received. The suit also seeks attorney’s fees and court costs. 

In an earlier letter, Albany resident and contractor Peter Maas had asked City Attorney Robert Zweben to look into the claims, but the lawyer declined. Subsequently, the City Council voted 3-2 to take up the issue, though logistical problems delayed the follow-up meeting until this coming Monday. 

Maas cited three contibutions to CAN that topped the $100 maximum allowed under city law, including $200 from Riffer. The Finley lawsuit repeated many of the allegations in Maas’ letter. 

“Neither I nor anyone on my committee has asked Concerned Albany Neighbors to do anything. My committee and I know the campaign rules and follow them,” said O’Keefe in response to the Maas complaint. 


Non-endorsement endorsement? 

The other controversy concerns whether or not Papalia endorsed Proposition 90, possibly the most radical and controversial measure to confront California voters on the Nov. 7 ballot. 

The Save Our Shoreline website declares that “On 9/29/06 Papalia endorsed Proposition 90, a truly scary anti-environmental measure being pitched by Orange County property rights extremists.” 

“That’s wrong,” Papalia declared Monday. “That a lie, a lie, a lie. I never did endorse Proposition 90.” He pointed to the No on 90 website, which Monday showed Papalia as one of many Californians who have called for a no vote on the measure ( index.php). 

But a check of the same website Wednesday found his name missing from the list of opponents. Kathy Fairbanks of Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks, the campaign management firm that runs the website, said, “Anybody can sign up on the website, but we don’t list candidates, and when we found out that’s what he was, we took him off.” 

And while the comments he made about Proposition 90 during the Sept. 29 League of Women Voters debate—the basis of the claim made on the SOS website—didn’t contain the words “I endorse,” Papalia offered unqualified praise for the ballot measure: 

“Proposition 90 is to really protect everyone from eminent domain abuse,” he said. “It’s there not to protect the corporations or large landowners. It is there to protect the small property owners. A very famous case has been in the news about property owners. I think it was in New Jersey or New York where the city had declared wonderful homes blighted properties so they could be taken to create a commercial development. So this whole thing is designed to protect the property rights of everyone.” [The latest campaign statements from all Albany candidates, including Papalia, can be found in the opinion section of today’s Planet.] 

In fact, Kelo v. City of New London, the case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, concerned riverfront property in Connecticut, where land was taken to develop a research park, upscale housing, office towers and a marina. Owners of several modest homes on part of the site filed the lawsuit that was ended by the high court ruling. 

While Proposition 90 and similar measures on the ballots in other states would bar seizing private land for commercial development, the measure’s other provisions would effectively end most of the powers of state and local governments to limit development, critics say, by paving the way for lawsuits by owners seeking compensation for any regulations that limit their ability to develop property to the maximum extent otherwise allowed by law before the regulation was enacted. 

Even the strongly pro-development California Chamber of Commerce opposes the measure, along with many other business and conservative groups, who say it goes too far in allowing potentially onerous lawsuits by property owners affected by regulatory actions. 


Stolen literature 

Another furor emerged after news broke that Wile had swiped some of Papalia’s campaign literature as she was walking precincts in the city. 

Unlike Berkeley’s Tom Bates, who swiped a sizable number of copies of the Daily Cal before his first election as mayor, Wile said she took only a few of the leaflets, replacing them with copies of her own handout.  

“I picked up about a dozen flyers when I had a temper tantrum,” she said later. “I apologized to the City Council and to him. I offered to place his literature all over the city.” 

She told the council, “I am extremely remorseful and regretful over my uncharacteristic lapse in behavior, for which I offer no excuse. What I did was wrong and will not be repeated by me or anyone connected to my campaign.”