Little cities spend big on lobbyists

On April 2, the city of Half Moon Bay voted to disband their police force in a cost-cutting measure and contract with the county sheriff. Savings: about $500,000 a year.

In 2008 and the first six months of 2009, Half Moon Bay lobbied hard — and failed — for bills designed to help bail out the cash-strapped city. The lobbying bill: $1,047,531.

In other words, the city gambled big on a way to get out of well-publicized financial troubles — and cost themselves about a year of wiggle room in the process. To put the amount they spent by this city of 11,234 in perspective, nearby San Francisco, with a population of 805,000, spent $1.4 million on lobbying over the same period. Los Angeles, population $3.8 million, spent $2 million. That’s $93 per person in Half Moon Bay, $1.74 per capita in SF, and 53 cents in LA.

But they’ve got nothing on the City of Vernon, which dropped a whopping $566,884 on lobbying during the first three months of this year alone. Over the same period, L.A. spent $343,441, and San Francisco spent nothing. Vernon’s population: 96. That’s about $5,900 in lobbying for each resident of Vernon, versus 9 cents per capita for L.A.

And it isn’t just individual small cities and towns paying big lobbying bills. The League of California Cities spent $722,231 on lobbying during the first quarter of this year — nearly double their average quarterly spending for last year.

In each case, the spending was designed to head off potential existential threats. With the city of Vernon, it’s a bill explicitly designed to legislate them out of existence.

Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, is carrying AB 46. The bill would disincorporate any city with fewer than 150 people, a classification that would only apply to Vernon among current California cities. The small, industrial city sits within Pérez’s district, but he’s called it a “fiefdom” where a small group of wealthy people control the government, discourage elections and hand out goodies like subsidized housing to favorite people. City representatives say they have been singled out unfairly and unconstitutionally.

Then there’s the city of Bell, where a jump in lobbying spending may have been a sign of trouble. With essentially no history of lobbying spending, Bell spent $30,000 in 2009. The money was used to lobby on bills that would affect local taxation and transportation spending. In July 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that city officials in Bell, population 36,500, were receiving extremely high salaries. This led to a successful recall campaign and criminal indictments.

But Half Moon Bay probably takes the cake for big spending by a small city – and a catastrophe of miscalculations and bad timing that all began with a controversial court ruling over a small coastal development.  

In 2007, the city lost a decision to developer Charles “Chop” Keenan. Including court fees, the city was on the hook for $41.1 million – four times its annual budget. A few months later, the city signed a settlement deal that would get them off the hook if they could convince the state legislature to let Keenan build a development on the land in question.

The problem with the settlement was that it removed the city’s right to appeal the ruling – something former mayor Mike Ferreira questioned. He lost his reelection bid in 2005 by eight votes, ushering in a conservative majority on the five-member city council which persists to this day.

“How could any attorney advise a city to do that?” asks Ferreira, who has since moved to Moss Beach.

AB 1991 by then-Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D- South San Francisco, would have given them that exemption. That’s where the city put most of its money, using the firm of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe to negotiate the settlement and lobby for the bill.

Half Moon Bay city councilman Rick Kowalczyk had yet to be elected at that point, but he laid out the rational for the money.

“Based on the data we had, they believed it was the best chance to mitigate the financial risk for the city,” Kowalczyk said.

In 2009, Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-South San Francisco, carried a bill that would have had a combination of state agencies loan the city $10 million, but it died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“The state was already in financial difficulties, so finding $10 million to throw away was pretty tough,” Ferreira said.

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