By Dave Waddell
A political action committee, under state investigation for its 2014 activities, again produced a slew of negative advertising this election year, flooding the mails with attacks on liberal candidates for Chico City Council.
The PAC, called Butte County Awareness and Accountability, is the subject of an ongoing probe by the Fair Political Practices Commission that resulted from a ChicoSol story that can be read here. Tom Kozik, a member of the Chico Municipal Airport Commission, is the PAC’s founder and treasurer. For years, Kozik was a leader of the Tea Party in Chico.
In 2016, two conservative PACs – Kozik’s committee, as well as a separate PAC headed up by ex-police chief Mike Maloney — distributed a total of four negative mailers, including two that solely attacked Councilman Randall Stone.
The conservatives’ 4-3 majority on the City Council going into the election remained the same after Nov. 8’s balloting. Conservative Vice Mayor Sean Morgan was the top vote-getter, while liberal incumbents Stone and Ann Schwab also won re-election. Incumbent Tami Ritter finished fifth in a race for four seats, but she will be replaced by fellow progressive Karl Ory.
Come 2018, the political dynamic will be reversed, as seats held by just conservatives – the threesome of Mayor Mark Sorensen, Reanette Fillmer and Andrew Coolidge – will be contested.
The ‘16 election saw a continuation of the trend of increased fundraising and spending by candidates and PACs in Chico races.
The $53,750 Morgan’s campaign has disclosed spending is a record for a council candidate
Most striking of all is Morgan, who, as of Nov. 2, had raised an eye-popping $62,500, already a record amount for a council candidate. Morgan’s bankroll blew away Fillmer’s short-lived fund-raising benchmark of $46,900, set two years ago. The $53,750 Morgan’s campaign has disclosed spending to date also is a record for a council candidate in Chico. In winning a seat on the City Council in 2014, Morgan raised and spent about $41,000.
Very little of Butte County Awareness and Accountability’s 2016 spending is known to date – for a couple of reasons:
- The PAC has been providing less detail in its reports than in the past, at least pertaining to its Chico activities. In 2014 disclosure statements, for example, Kozik named former Chico mayor Scott Gruendl as the subject of two negative mailers put out by the PAC. However, in its most recent disclosures, dated Oct. 27, the PAC reported paying about $3,000 for a campaign mailing, but the “description of payment” box on the form was left blank by Kozik. In total, the PAC put out three negative mailers, as well as a yard sign opposing Ory.
- A second reason for the dearth of information about the PAC’s 2016 activities has to do with where its disclosure statements are filed. Kozik has consistently sent campaign documents to the Butte County elections office in Oroville — even though the PAC, in the only two elections in which it has operated, has spent the bulk of its funds on hit pieces aimed at Chico City Council candidates.
This is significant because Chico requires an extra pre-election disclosure period beyond those mandated by the state. The extra period is Oct. 23 through Nov. 2 – a timeframe in which political spending can be active, said Dani Rogers, deputy city clerk.
“The reason for the additional reporting requirement is to allow the public and candidates to see who might be donating money or sending out a mass mailing or hit piece right before Election Day,” Rogers said.
Even though Kozik this year began providing “courtesy copies” of Butte County Awareness and Accountability’s disclosure reports to the city’s website, the PAC, as a county filer, wasn’t required to comply with the city’s extra reporting requirement, Rogers said. The state’s next disclosure deadline is at the end of January.
ChicoSol’s reporting led to an FPPC investigation that can be read about here. The FPPC does not comment on active investigations; however, the ChicoSol story focused on apparent irregularities related to both where the PAC filed its paperwork and how it identified itself during the 2014 election cycle. Two years ago, about 78 percent of Butte County Awareness and Accountability’s spending went for the two Gruendl mailers. State law requires that a PAC’s disclosure statements be filed with a city if it spends 70 percent or more of its funds on elections in that city.
ChicoSol’s reporting also has raised questions over whether Kozik identified his PAC properly in establishing it as a “general purpose” committee in 2014. State reporting forms distinguish between such committees and those “primarily formed to support or oppose specific candidates or measures in a single election.”
Kozik has declined comment on the FPPC investigation and did not reply to a message seeking comment for this story.
“The additional reporting requirement is to allow the public to see who might be sending out a mass mailing or hit piece right before Election Day” — deputy clerk Dani Rogers
While Butte County Awareness and Accountability’s disclosures to date for the November election reveal little about its three mailers and anti-Ory sign, the PAC was quite specific when it came to its non-Chico spending. Indeed, the PAC filed a form on the eve of the election disclosing a $1,500 contribution it made to Citizens for a Safer Butte County, a PAC opposing ill-fated Measure L, which sought to liberalize marijuana growing in Butte County. That contribution, too, followed the PAC’s method of operation from 2014.
To date for ’16, Butte County Awareness and Accountability has reported raising $8,750 and spending about $6,000. If the PAC’s mailers this year cost what it paid for mailers in 2014 – about $4,300 apiece – then its overall spending for negative advertising in the Chico City Council election would climb to more than $13,000.
As was the case in 2014, Butte County Awareness and Accountability’s single largest donor is downtown developer Wayne Cook, best known for reconstructing the Hotel Diamond. Cook gave the PAC $5,000 two years ago and at least $3,500 this year. He was an outspoken critic of negative advertising directed last spring at his associate, Joe Montes, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress, and wrote this letter.
Despite being the PAC’s biggest financial backer, Cook has called the mailers against Gruendl in 2014 “pretty harsh” and was even more critical of the PAC’s “Save the Esplanade!” mailer this year. That piece lambasted Stone, Schwab and Ritter for briefly backing a plan to put roundabouts on Chico’s iconic thoroughfare and can be read more about here.
Asked whether he would continue to fund Butte County Awareness and Accountability in future elections, Cook said: “I don’t know. Probably not. The chances would be slim.”
In addition to “Save the Esplanade!” the PAC mailed two other hit pieces, including “Sink Schwab!” that blasted three-term incumbent Schwab with a Titanic-themed attack critical of recession-era deficit-spending that put the city in a deep hole financially.
“This was sent by the local Trump Republicans’ SuperPac funded by big developers who want to repeal the Greenline,” said Schwab when asked for her reaction to the flier. “Negative campaigning detracts from the civil discussions our community expects from its public officials.”
The PAC’s third mailer was headlined “Prune Stone!” and claimed the liberal Stone has been a “climate bandit” and “bad for trees” in Chico.
Stone also was the target of a hit piece put out by a different conservative PAC, Chico Citizens for Accountable Government, headed up by Maloney, now a Butte College administrator. That PAC raised $30,750 in support of Morgan – about $4,500 of which went for the Stone mailer.
Together, Morgan’s own campaign and the Maloney PAC to date raised about $94,000 to aid Morgan – a total that could grow.
Maloney, who retired from the Police Department 4 ½ years ago, has repeatedly railed against Stone in his personal blog. In the mailer put out by his PAC, Maloney printed a dated picture of himself in his Chico police uniform with a quote from himself about “Reckless Randall Stone’s terrible judgement (sic).”
Stone said the mailers represent the worst of Chico politics and are the product of “shadowy PACs that will stop at nothing to denigrate the work of people in this community.”
Dave Waddell is ChicoSol news director and has practiced journalism since the 1970s.