EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains a copy of a Form 460 filed by Murrieta-based PAC, Citizens for Government Integrity.
SOLANA BEACH — Mailers circulating around town have perplexed council candidates and incumbents alike, raising questions about why an out-of-town political action committee would take a stance on local politics in the second-smallest city in San Diego.
The most recent mailer, received by residents on Oct. 30, shows Councilwoman Lesa Heebner holding two marionette puppets. The puppets are labeled with the names of City Council candidates Kelly Harless and Kristi Becker — who have both received endorsements from Heebner. Two puppets holding the names of current council members Jewel Edson and Peter Zahn loom at her side.
The mailer reads: “It’s time to close the curtains on the Solana Beach puppet show.” On the back? A photo of council candidate Craig Nelson, along with several bullet notes accusing City Council of “(ignoring) community opposition to roundabouts,” dividing communities through district elections, making it “nearly impossible for new businesses to start up,” and “punishing children” by not supporting a La Colonia de Eden Gardens grant.
The mailer is one of three similar mailers distributed locally in the past few weeks, paid for by a Murrieta-based PAC, Citizens for Government Integrity. The first mailer, distributed in mid-October, urged voters to “Vote NO on Corruption and YES for Reform,” lauding Candidates Craig Nelson and Shawn McClondon as “new blood.” McClondon announced his withdrawal from the race a few days before the mailer was distributed.
Councilwoman Jewel Edson said the accusations are wrong, and Heebner defended the council on each of the second mailer’s points of contention — which were similar to those listed in the most recent mailer. She called the name of the PAC “ironic,” and said that it “masks their true intent.”
Councilman Peter Zahn called the mailers “outrageous and malicious,” and thinks Nelson’s response has been inadequate.
“(Nelson) has had multiple opportunities to push back vigorously on the people behind these attacks and he has failed to seize those opportunities,” Zahn said.
Candidate Kristi Becker called the mailer “demeaning.”
“This is mudslinging at its worst,” she said in an email to The Coast News. Kelly Harless could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
The PAC also sponsored a Facebook ad supporting Nelson, as well as a website titled “End Solana Beach Corruption.”
“For too long, Solana Beach Insiders have controlled City Hall,” states text on the site’s barebones landing page. “ … We must put an end to the corruption and elect new, fresh faces who will put residents first.”
Nelson said he has no connection with the mailer or the PAC, and was “shocked” when he received it. He said he filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission, and was told his only claim against the committee would be copyright infringement for using his photo.
“I didn’t expect these types of shenanigans,” Nelson said. “I’ve heard stories about stealing signs, but this takes it to a whole other level.”
Nelson said he thinks the negative campaigning stands to hurt his candidacy more than help it, though the effects “remain to be seen.”
According to the Citizens for Government Integrity’s Statement of Organization, it was assembled to “support & oppose local candidates and initiatives in Riverside and other counties.”
The committee has also been distributing mailers pertaining to City Council candidates in the city of Murrieta, supporting candidate and incumbent Mayor Jonathan Ingram, and opposing candidate Harry Ramos.
The Coast News reached out to Ingram, who “didn’t know (the committee) existed,” and wasn’t aware of Citizens for Government Integrity mailers supporting his campaign.
The PAC has received $43,000 from five separate donors, according to the committee’s Form 460, which was filed with the county of Riverside on Oct. 25. Only one entity is directly affiliated with the Solana Beach zip code — Orange Land Holdings LLC — which donated $500. A contributor under the name Solana Beach Pacific Avenue Trust also contributed $500.
Another $20,000 was donated by Emerald Venture Group, Inc., a San Diego-based real estate development company. According to the LinkedIn account of Jim Kelly, the company’s founder and president, Emerald Venture Group’s focus is “the entitlement and development of upscale, recreation-oriented residential communities.”
The other two contributors are a nonprofit owner from Temecula, who contributed $2,000; and a radiologist out of Fresno, who contributed $20,000.
The Coast News has made multiple attempts to reach out to the committee’s principal officer, Dennis Hollingsworth, to no response. Roe Strategic, run by political and communications strategist Jason Roe, was hired by the committee to create the mailers. Roe could not be reached for comment.
Although local players could only offer informed conjecture as to the PAC’s motives, Mayor Dave Zito thinks the contributors — specifically the development interests — are “trying to knock the current council…they don’t want to go through a rigorous review process,” he said.
Heebner said “it appears that building and development interests are trying to influence our City Council election in order to change the composition of our council.”
“Our current Council members scrutinize development rather than rubber stamp it, ensuring it benefits our residents as well as meeting the goals of developers,” Heebner wrote in an email to The Coast News.
Nelson, at the first candidate forum in September, mentioned advocating a “template” approach for developers in order to streamline the approval process. When asked whether he thought his stance on local development might have been a lure to some of the PAC’s contributors, he responded that of the 31 individual donors who have contributed to his campaign, not one is a corporation, developer or PAC.
“I used that term ‘template’ in the first forum to explain the frustration I have heard from property owners that complain the City constantly moves the goal line, and all they want is certainty and a firm set of rules that work both ways,” Nelson said in an email to The Coast News.
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.