‘Most of us didn’t have a chance’: How campaign donors and business leaders took control of a $50 million tax oversight committee

March 4, 2019 /

BY: Emma Gallegos for South Kern Sol

When Tracy Correa Lopez decided to apply for a spot on the Measure N Citizens’ Oversight Committee, she figured she would make a good candidate. She works in communications, is an organizer for the Kern County Women’s March and has experience serving on boards for Habitat for Humanity and Youth Leadership Bakersfield through the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.

Like a lot of applicants, Lopez’s main interest was to serve as a taxpayer. The one-cent sales tax that passed this November is expected to bring $50 million in revenue, representing an extra 25 percent in annual revenue for the city. When Bakersfield put out a call for citizens interested in serving on a nine-member committee to oversee the way the money would be spent, 82 residents answered — an avalanche of interest compared to what the city normally experiences. Members serve three-year terms and have a chance to scrutinize how Measure N money is spent before the public does. They will also be responsible for reviewing independent audits.

Lopez applied because she said she thought representation was important.

“We often complain that there isn’t enough Latina representation or female representation, and I thought, ‘I’m both of those. I’m a professional, and I serve on boards already,’” Lopez said.

But on Feb. 6, city council members held a vote. Twenty-five women applied— roughly 30 percent of all applicants — but just one woman, Beatris Espericueta Sanders, earned a spot on the committee.

Latina Leaders of Kern County, American Association of University Women Bakersfield, ShePower Leadership Academy and League of Women Voters of Kern County all signed a letter decrying the lack of female representation.

Reflecting on the vote, Lopez said: “most of us didn’t have a chance.”

Seven of the people who earned spots on the committee had been endorsed by a coalition led by the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce that included the Kern County Taxpayers Association, the Bakersfield Association of Realtors, the Bakersfield Police Officers Association and the Bakersfield Professional Firefighters International Association of Firefighters — all groups that propped up the Measure N campaign with support and funding.

“They presented this as a Citizens’ Taxpayers Oversight, but there were other forces,” Lopez said.

That they were also handpicked by a business coalition led some critics, including Lopez, to feel like the ‘good ol’ boys’ network was still alive in Bakersfield. But it wasn’t just professional women who felt left out in the cold.

“If we’re just hearing from the business community, we’re doing Kern County a disservice,” said Josth Stenner, a community organizer with Faith in Valley, a nonprofit that works to promote investment in disadvantaged communities. “We’ve seen through the entire process that there were voices that were valued and voices that weren’t valued.”

How Measure N became a business cause

The city brought the business community into the process of crafting and later selling a sales tax measure to the public long before it reached the ballot.

The sales tax that would become known as Measure N was kickstarted by a report out of the city manager’s office in October 2017. Decreasing revenues and mounting obligations would lead to an $8 million deficit by 2018-2019. Left unabated, that deficit would more than double to $16.5 million by 2022-2023, according to budget forecasts.

City Manager Alan Tandy blamed a slump in the local energy industry, the boom of online shopping sapping profits from local retailers, layoffs at non-energy employers and cost increases for state pensions, employee healthcare and utilities.

The city council hired a consultant to poll residents on the possibility of a sales tax. The firm predicted 65 percent of voters would support the measure — about 15 percent more than what was needed to make it pass.

By May 2018, the city manager’s office had already met with the business groups that would become high-profile supporters of the measure. Among them were the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, Kern County Taxpayers Association, Bakersfield Association of Realtors, Kern Home Builders Association and Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government.

In a May 30 memo, Tandy wrote there was a demand for oversight from these groups.

Spending priorities that the city had proposed were filtered through the lens of the business community in feedback. One comment noted in a city report indicated “frustration” with an increasing homeless population and its impact on the business community.

Stenner said he is concerned that these early conversations with business leaders shaped a discussion about the measure’s priorities, which means investment in neighborhoods like downtown and police in low-income neighborhoods.

“Communities of color will get investments too, but those come in the form of over-policing,” Stenner said. “The reason we need community representation is there are a lot of different ways to design public safety.”

On June 20, representatives from the Bakersfield Professional Firefighters, Kern County Taxpayers Association, Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, Bakersfield Association of Realtors and Bakersfield Homeless Center all spoke in support of a sales tax at the City Council meeting. The City Council decided to put Measure N on the ballot: voters would decide if the sales tax should be hiked from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent.

The Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce threw its full weight behind the measure. The organization’s president and CEO, Nicholas Ortiz, co-authored the ballot’s supporting argument along with Vice Mayor Bob Smith.

The campaign

It was a broad coalition of groups representing labor, public safety, utilities as well as business and real estate interests that raised over $127,000 in cash for the Yes on N campaign.

The biggest donors to the Yes on N campaign were police and firefighters, who stood to directly benefit from the measure heavily touted as a public safety measure.

The Bakersfield Police Officers Association PAC donated $35,000. The Bakersfield Professional Firefighters Local 246 Action Fund was the first donor to the Yes on N campaign, dropping $25,000 into the campaign at the end of July. Altogether they were the biggest Yes on N donor, gifting $45,000.

Tim Ortiz, president of the firefighters’ political action committee, said Measure N represented the chance to work in a safer department, staffed at the same levels it was at before the 2008 recession. Firefighters’ fates are linked to police, he said. When officers are slow to respond, that can hurt firefighters in an emergency, too.

The Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce donated $10,000 in cash to Yes on N. The Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce PAC donated an additional $5,000 and then about $8,100 more to the campaign through mailers and about $2,400 on polling. Altogether the chamber donated about $25,500 to Yes on N.

The SEIU Local 521 Issues PAC donated cash and offered up a lot of manpower to the Measure N. They donated $15,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, such as phone-banking and office space brought their total contributions to more than $18,000.

The aftermath

Measure N eked out a 97-vote victory as ballot counting was finalized on Dec. 3, winning 50.5 percent of the vote. Though it was a narrow win, it was a resounding success compared to Measure I, a similar ballot measure aimed at raising the sales tax in neighboring Kern County. Nearly 65 percent of county voters were against the measure.

Members of the business coalition took credit for the win.

“Without our help and our good names, it would not have passed,” said Michael Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern Taxpayers Association.

While discussing how they would appoint an oversight committee, councilmembers Andrae Gonzales, Bob Smith and Jacquie Sullivan lavished praise on the Kern Taxpayers Association, the Bakersfield Association of Realtors and the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. Though there were overtures to the broader community coming together, there were no mentions of the public safety groups that had spent heavily or labor groups that had done phone-banking or door-knocking for Yes on N.

Smith suggested that the business community, chamber of commerce, realtors and taxpayers would bring expertise and support to the committee.

Tandy took it a step further and said that “certainly nominating agencies that support us should be given some level of recognition and priority.”

By this point, the business coalition had already been working behind the scenes with his office.

The Greater Bakersfield Business Chamber of Commerce, Bakersfield Association of Realtors and Kern Taxpayers’ Association sent a letter to the city council and mayor supporting a resolution establishing the Citizen’s Oversight Committee.

“As a unified coalition, we have met with City Manager Alan Tandy and Assistant City Manager Chris Huot to discuss parameters for the committee. In addition, we discussed our continued collaboration and plan to remain engaged throughout the implementation of Measure N and the establishment of the Citizen’s Oversight Committee. Moving ahead, we look forward to working with the appointed Citizen’s Oversight Committee to work on bylaws of the committee and pinpointing areas of focus.”

The City Council’s resolution outlining the terms of the Citizens Oversight Committee encouraged members of those supporting organizations to nominate oversight committee members.

The nomination process

Once the avalanche of applications came into the City Clerk’s office, a meeting was held by businesses to decide on a slate of nine candidates to nominate from the pile of more than 80 candidates that applied.

“The Chamber got to be the lead dog on that,” Turnipseed said.

Different parties came together to discuss their interests and come to a consensus. The coalition identified about 25 applicants who they deemed highly-qualified.

“We nominated people that we would hire to work for us,” Turnipseed said. “We wanted people we would hire to be our controller — that’s the kind of people we selected.”

Ortiz described a process where they were cognisant of picking candidates by accounting for applicants’ gender, geography, ethnicity and professional qualifications.

“Once we got the slate, we were happy with it,” Turnipseed said.

The original list also had members from the African-American, Asian and Sikh communities.

“We thought that was important,” Turnipseed said.

The original list had three women, including two who were eliminated, Turnipseed said: Linda Jay, the CEO of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors and Norma Diaz, the owner of La Rosa.

“They voted two women off the island,” he said, of the council members.

When the time came to vote, no one on the council voted for the full slate of nine recommended by the business coalition. But every single member did vote for a majority — or at least five members of the slate.

“When the chamber and realtors and firefighters — reputable organizations working in the community that have a solid record and solid priorities — when they make an endorsement, it’s significant,” Gonzales said. “I made very clear to the chamber that I would not be voting for their entire slate. I reserved the right to select who I felt best represented the community.”

During the very first round of votes, the seven members nominated by the business coalition who ultimately made the Citizens’ Oversight Committee made the first cut: Barry Hibbard with SJV Real Estate, who is a director with the Kern Taxpayers Association; Kenneth Keller of Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, who is a Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce Board member; Wayland Louie of Golden Empire Realty, who is also secretary/treasurer with the Bakersfield Association of Realtors; Frederick Prince, of Omega Financial Services; Beatris Espericueta Sanders of Adventist Health; Mitchell Roland, a private investigator; and Pritesh Patel of Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center, who announced he was stepping down from the committee last week.

It took two more rounds of voting to appoint the final two members who were outside the slate: Jeremy Tobias of Community Action Partnership, a member of the nonprofit world and Brian Holt, assistant business manager for the IBEW Local 428, whose appointment was buoyed by support from the labor community.

Holt said his first goal is to make sure the money is being spent the way it is promised, but he said that he is also looking at it through the lens of labor. He quoted the famous political adage: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, that means you’re on the menu.”

The next steps

It was only after the council appointed its Citizens Oversight Committee that there was major scrutiny of the process, even though the groundwork for a business-led committee had been laid for almost a year.

The Bakersfield Californian editorial board described the appointment process as a “mess” and wrote that each council member should have been able to appoint representatives from their own wards to ensure geographic diversity, like other committees. Kern County Women’s March organizers said that there should have been a conversation ahead of time to address the importance of diversity on the committee.

“They voted blind so you couldn’t see how other people were voting, so they couldn’t be intentional,” said Robin Walters, an organizer with the march. “This is how you can end up with one woman.”

But Gonzales said it was the best approach the council had at its disposal.

“I think the process that we established was the best that would could have come up with. Hindsight is 20/20,” Gonzales said. “We developed it at the meetings prior. It’s been transparent in terms of how we would choose the oversight committee.”

Gonzales said he encourages advocates to come to him sooner with their issues, because he said it’s harder to do much after the fact.

“It’s much more helpful if advocates are proactive and are vocalizing their priorities before the decision is made,” he said. “I appreciate it when people communicate with me early and when they communicate with me often. I’m not an expert on every issue, so that is very helpful.”

Stenner with Faith in the Valley said that response is frustrating when it was clear that city leaders were looking for buy-in from the business community early into the Measure N campaign.

“It was very clear who the city council and other partners thought they needed to make this change,” Stenner said. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: You need the business community and so you spend all your time pursuing them. I think it’s disingenuous.”

Gonzales is concerned that public perception of the oversight committee’s powers are overblown.

“They don’t have the authority or power to direct staff like a city council member does or to fund certain things,” he said.

Its powers are mostly advisory and the ultimate power to spend rests with elected officials. He encourages the public to get involved and voice their opinions on the way the money is spent to their council members and at public forums. Money will start being collected on April 1 and the city will begin to see revenue in late June.

“The public ultimately has final say on all of this,” Gonzales said. “They choose to re-elect council members or not.”