Good evening. I am Roberta Millstein, citizen of Davis, speaking for myself.
I am extremely concerned about members of the Davis City Council participating in a fundraiser for the Davis Vanguard. Let me quote from the Facebook event:
The Vanguard Fundraiser will feature Davis Mayor Brett Lee, Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida, and Councilmembers Lucas Frerichs and Dan Carson, who will speak at a fundraiser for the Davis Vanguard… Will Arnold, unable to attend will be there in spirit. Each of the speakers will speak briefly and then take questions. The event has a suggested donation of $25.
So, four out of five of you are the featured speakers of a fundraiser for a self-proclaimed local news outlet, including a question and answer period, with the fifth apparently willing to have his name associated with the fundraiser. I note that this is a very different sort of event from other events that you all participate in together, such as Picnic Day, where City issues are not discussed.
Some of you may be aware that the Davisite.org blog has previously raised concerns about this event and that it has undergone some changes in response. Yet as the basic problems with the event remain, including potential Brown Act violations, I feel compelled to speak at public comment about them in the hope that members of Council will rethink their participation.
The basic problem is this: Elected officials – especially those who may be running for re-election soon, as some of you may be – should not be raising money for news outlets, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. By being the featured speakers of the Vanguard fundraiser, you all invoke the spectre of “pay for play” – that is to say, you create the potential impression that by raising money for the Vanguard, you will receive favorable press from the Vanguard in return.
Let me be clear. I am not accusing any of you of trying to seek favorable press from the Vanguard. That is not the point. The point is that each of you should be trying to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, as one does with standard “conflict of interest” precautions.
To make the problem more vivid, let’s imagine that in the future the Vanguard runs a positive article about a controversial decision from the City Council, a favored cause that the Council supports, or, even more problematically, about one of your re-election campaigns. Readers will wonder whether the article genuinely reflects a positive view of the Council or whether that article should be better viewed as a “paid advertisement” snuck in under the covers. Again, this worry about appearance is present regardless of whether either side intends to engage in a problematic practice. Both sides should keep their noses so clean that readers don’t have to wonder. Both sides should want to support independent press in Davis so that citizens can make informed and thoughtful decisions.
I think you all are acting improperly by fundraising for the Vanguard, and I call on you to cancel your participation in this event. Your appearance there can only harm the City and the public trust.
Colin Walsh: City Council Comments 4/23/2019
I support a free press and I would like to read to you part of the Institute for Non-profit New’s Ethics & Practices Policies.
“We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization.”
“As a nonprofit, we will avoid accepting donations from anonymous sources, and we will not accept donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates actively seeking public office.” – that would probably describe 3 of you currently.
Until David Greenwald and his so called “news reporting organization” start adhering to these very reasonable guidelines, we have a real and growing problem afflicting the politics in our community.
Look no further than our own Councils’ referral of the Yes on Measure L campaign to the District Attorney and FPPC. Many of the allegations point directly to Vanguard practices. Non-reporting of ad purchases, large improper donations, and that is just what we know about. Has the WDAAC made even larger contributions that have been unreported? Did individuals donate to buy better coverage? We don’t know, and we won’t know until the Vanguard cleans up its act.
What about the Nishi developers? How much did they contribute for the very favorable coverage they received?
And now we have the Entire City Council fronting for a fundraising event. 3 of you are up for reelection. How much have you contributed to get favorable treatment? How much did your supporters give? Maybe nothing, maybe thousands. We just won’t know until the Vanguard cleans up its act and accounts for its funding.
Until then, what we are left with is the appearance of impropriety. Something our electeds must try to avoid.
Until the Vanguard cleans up its act, there is no way Council members, especially those running for reelection should be fronting for a Vanguard fundraiser. It looks like quid pro quo. It looks like investing now to buy favorable election coverage later.
Put a stop to this and withdraw from the event until the Vanguard follows ethical standards of non-profit journalism.
I am speaking tonight about the very troubling nature of City Council participation in a fundraiser event for the Davis Vanguard at Lamppost Pizza on May 19. First, there are Brown Act issues. Constituents will be attending to ask questions and get responses from Council members on city issues. Based on state law and guidance from the League of California Cities and the Attorney General, a gathering is defined as a meeting if a majority of the members of the legislative body merely receive information or discuss their views on an issue over which they have jurisdiction. Merely hearing about the positions of other members also is included.
To the extent that the Council wants to try to do a question-and-answer session outside of its formal meetings, it should be free and open to all citizens. It should be noticed and agendized. It should not require a donation to an organization. I would ask what consultation and guidance Council members received before agreeing to conduct this meeting and how they think they can hold this meeting without running afoul of the Brown Act.
This private event also raises larger troubling questions about access and ethics. The public is being encouraged to contribute money at a private event, for the opportunity to get access to council members. Some might also construe this as implied Council support for the Vanguard's political agendas and positions. Furthermore, the Council members should not put themselves in the position of providing support for a news outlet (regardless of its tax status or views) that covers them, their policy decisions, and their reelection campaigns; and which could lead to the impression that they are angling for the quid pro quo of favorable coverage.
I am not expecting responses tonight. Indeed it would a Brown Act violation if you did so. The Act requires that you do not substantively respond to my questions or anyone else’s in the comment period at CC meetings because the subjects are non-agendized.
I am calling on the Council members to withdraw their participation in this event and to issue an unequivocal statement regarding the involvement by elected officials with media organizations who cover them, especially organizations like the Vanguard that provide no transparency or openness about their funding sources and which do not follow ethical guidelines for editorial and funding firewalls.
The Council should want to avoid even the appearance of Brown Act violations, the appearance of “pay to play” access issues, and the appearance of quid pro quos from journalists.