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Ethics change put on hold Jon Campbell | Fri, Jun 18 2010 06:05 PM

The Chula Vista City Council will soon review the procedure for how it handles ethics complaints against elected officials that involve campaign finance laws.

After considerable discussion, the council voted 4-1 to bring the law back for review at their next meeting on June 22.

They will explore either a full repeal of the clause in question, which would take roughly 45 days, or a more immediate suspension of the clause.

Mayor Cheryl Cox was the lone vote against the motion.

The clause under review currently requires all citizen complaints related to campaign funding to be investigated by an independent attorney hired by the city.

Having investigations performed by outside council, rather than in the city attorney's office, is intended to promote independence.

Critics say the provision is easily manipulated because even a complaint with no real merit triggers the "investigation," providing convenient fodder for political attacks.

The City Council is required to set aside $100,000 per year to fund such investigations.

Councilman Rudy Ramirez brought the issue forward, and his original motion sought to have the chapter repealed in its entirety.

Aside from being costly, Ramirez said the provision was redundant. There are already several venues for citizens to file ethics complaints related to campaign finance, including California's Fair Political Practices Commission, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office and the city's own ethics commission, he said.

Ramirez said the law was too often used by political enemies looking to score points with a manufactured scandal.

"It (the clause) has been abused and it's costing the city money for no good reason except political motives," said Ramirez.

Ramirez's sentiments were echoed by council members Mitch Thompson and Pamela Bensoussan who said the law was "duplicative" and unnecessary given all of the other ways that ethics charges can be brought.

While no one mentioned the case specifically, recent charges against Councilman Steve Castaneda could be seen as an example of the potential for abuse under the current investigation process. Castaneda was accused of a raft of campaign finance violations late last year, and though the charges were dismissed in their entirety, the open investigation became an albatross in his recent campaign for mayor.

His opponent Cox made political hay out of the fact that Castaneda was "under investigation," although she said she had never actually seen the charges leveled against him.

The allegations against Castaneda were not dismissed until just before election day. In exonerating him, the attorney hired to review the case strenuously criticized his accuser, and called the charges "frivolous" and "ludicrous."

She also suggested the allegations had been meant primarily to attract the attention of the media. City Attorney Bart Miesfeld estimated that the investigation into Castaneda's finances cost the city about $15,000.

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