Chamber of Commerce PAC FoldsBy Judith Scherr

By Judith Scherr
Friday February 08, 2008

Under the gun to file its contribution statements with the city of Berkeley rather than with Alameda County, Business for Better Government, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee (PAC), is going out of business. 

Although the state Fair Political Practices Commission advised the city and the Chamber PAC attorneys that the PAC should file its campaign contribution statements with the city, it has not done so. 

It is unclear whether the PAC—even if terminated—will have to file past contribution statements with the city. Deputy City Attorney Kristy van Herick told the Planet on Thursday that the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission will decide whether to press the issue. 

Asked if the PAC would file locally, retroactively, Miriam Ng, Chamber PAC chair, told the Planet, “We’ll do whatever is necessary.”  

In 2006, the PAC collected and spent more than $100,000 to defeat Measure J, the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, to elect Mayor Tom Bates and to attempt to unseat Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring. 

But it was difficult for local voters to ascertain the names of those who had contributed to the PAC, since it filed campaign finance disclosure documents with the Alameda County registrar and disclosed only a limited number of contributors to the Berkeley city clerk. 

Berkeley campaign finance law requires the city to post on the internet the names of contributors to local campaigns and the amount contributed, and to publish the information in local newspapers. The Alameda County registrar places campaign finance statements on the internet only if filers use specific software, which is not obligatory.  

In response to a query by van Herick, the state weighed in, in August 2007, advising the city that, because the PAC’s contributions were directed overwhelmingly to Berkeley campaigns, it should file its campaign disclosure documents in Berkeley and not with the county. 

The PAC hired San Francisco-based Sutton Law Firm, which responded Nov. 14 with arguments against filing locally. 

On Nov. 26 Emelyn Rodriguez, counsel in the Legal Division of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, wrote the PAC attorneys saying the Commission would not reconsider its advice: 

“You state that the percentage of money the committee spent in the last five years is but one factor in determining whether a general purpose committee should file as a county or city committee. You stated that the Commission should also take into account the committee’s ‘other activities’ such as: its monitoring of county legislation and politics; its promotion of county voter registration; advising the Chamber on ‘non-reportable member communications regarding issues of importance throughout the county,’ … You also state that the Commission should consider the Berkeley Chamber PAC’s intent to be regularly active in future county elections, even if some of all of the committee’s past activity is in a different jurisdiction.” 

The state FPPC attorney concludes that given the PAC spent $124,500 between 2002 and 2006 on Berkeley campaign expenditures, gave a single $500 campaign contribution to a state candidate and gave no contributions at all to county candidates or issues, that “we reaffirm the conclusion reached in the van Herick letter that the Berkeley Chamber PAC, based on its expenditures, is a city general-purpose committee.” 

On Jan. 8 van Herick wrote the Chamber PAC, asking it to change its filing status by Jan. 31. The letter was followed by a voicemail message. 

The response came to van Herick in a Jan. 28 e-mail from Melissa A Mikesell, an attorney with the Sutton Law Firm, notifying her that the PAC was going out of business.  

“I received your voicemail and wanted to let you know that the Berkeley Chamber PAC decided to terminate the PAC effective 12/31/07. They will be filing their termination Form 460 with the County in the next few days,” the e-mail said. 

Asked whether the Chamber PAC will reinvent itself as another organization, Ng said: “We may do that. We don’t know that yet.”