REGION — At nearly every State of the City speech in North County, local Chambers of Commerce and member companies host the party and foot the bill.
And Escondido is no exception.
Sponsoring companies for the Feb. 27 State of the City event convened by the Escondido Chamber of Commerce paid $500 for a table with their company logos on prominent display, a spot in the official State of the City program, a place on the official welcome sign for the event and breakfast for 10 attendees.
The issue of Chambers of Commerce and private businesses both bankrolling and fundraising at these events has raised red flags among advocates seeking to reduce corporate influence in local politics.
A Coast News review has discovered that the practice is common around San Diego County and nationwide.
And according to a prominent legal expert, the funding arrangement sits within currently established state law.
Sponsors of the Escondido address were San Diego Gas & Electric, Shuster Oil, the real estate development company Newland, AT&T and Cox Communications, as well as the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
Escondido Chamber of Commerce CEO Rorie Johnston said hosting the State of the City as a sponsored event at the California Center for the Arts brings more people into the fold of city government.
Johnston pointed to cities across the county that are funding and administering the event in exactly the same way.
“At least in the state of California, it would change the event for every city, or basically every city,” Johnston said. “So instead of having the type of event we hold, you would probably have a City Council meeting with an update from the mayor.”
If company donations and chamber sponsorship were to stop, the State of the City event could fall by the wayside, according to Johnston.
“And is that doing the community a favor or is it diminishing an opportunity to hear from our mayor in particular?” Johnston asked. “I think that’s a valid question.”
Escondido’s State of the City included a pre-speech breakfast for a $20 fee which goes to the Chamber of Commerce.
The main event was free and open to the general public.
Other North County cities, such as Encinitas, Carlsbad and San Marcos, charge the public $30, $99 and $105 per ticket, respectively, to attend their State of the City addresses. Vista charges $60 for a ticket.
All of the cities’ State of the City addresses are overseen by their local Chamber of Commerce branches, with the exception of Del Mar, Solana Beach and Oceanside.
Jenkins, who chairs the Brown Act Committee for the California League of Cities says that the California Fair Practices Commission has yet to make any kind of determination about outside parties raising money as part of an official government meeting.
Jenkins points to the operative provision within 54953.3 which reads, “A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body of a local agency … to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance” to argue that cities should be wary of a mandated charge to attend the State of the City.
Demanding payment amounts to creating a “condition precedent to his or her attendance” at the public meeting, according to Jenkins.
Simply partnering with the chamber and allowing it to raise funds for the event do not violate the Brown Act, Jenkins said.
“It is generally regarded as a co-sponsored event. It isn’t unusual for cities and chambers to collaborate to enhance economic development, to increase tourism, to enhance sales and transient occupancy tax revenues, to attract needed retail services, etc.,” Jenkins said. “All of those activities serve a legitimate municipal purpose. So, while the event may take different forms, it is common for the two entities to collaborate on a State of the City.”
Shuster Oil President Bob Shuster says his company sponsors many Escondido Chamber of Commerce events.
“I sponsor a lot of things that Chamber of Commerce needs sponsors for,” Shuster said. “Looking for nothing in return.”
Ben Manski, a scholar who studies constitutionalism and democracy at UC-Santa Barbara and who is currently editing a special issue of the Journal of World-Systems Research on corporate power and local democracy, believes its simply a case of pay-for-play politics.
“Most people are smart enough to see that the chamber doesn’t do this for altruistic reasons; the corporations that fund it do so in order to influence government officials,” Manski said. “These days, corporate influence in government usually tends to be more covert than this. That’s because most Americans react negatively to seeing corporations wining and dining our elected officials. So it is surprising to see such brazen flaunting of corporate dominance over local government here in California.”