Opinion Columns & Blogs

October 3, 2010

Sly: Take campaign mailer claims with very large grains of salt

What you don't know won't hurt you, in some cases. And will hurt you in others.

When it comes to reading and listening to campaign mailers, what you don't know can make you vulnerable to confusion and to be misled. And I think candidates and those supporting and opposing them like it that way.

I live in the 12th Senate District and vote by mail. (I prefer going to the polls, but switched so that I would get campaign material earlier in the process, which is useful for my job.)

The fliers are starting to arrive from both sides in this Senate race. With Jeff Denham termed out, it's an open seat that both Republicans and Democrats desperately want. It's going to be a lively race. Unfortunately, lively often evolves into nasty, but that's not my topic for today.

The first flier I received came from the California Republican Party promoting its candidate, Ceres mayor Anthony Cannella. It's pretty innocuous as these things go, stating that Cannella believes in creating new jobs, cutting government waste and so forth.

A couple of claims grated, however. The first, "As mayor, Anthony Cannella balanced every budget -- without raising taxes. He cut waste from the city budget and provided the kind (of) fiscal responsibility needed." This quote from Denham. I had no idea Denham had been attending Ceres council meetings.

Seriously, however, the statement has some spin. First of all, cities by law have to balance their budgets, so saying you've balanced yours isn't much of an achievement. Compared with the performance of the Legislature, which has used every gimmick imaginable in its budget remedies, it might sound impressive, but really it's like showing up for school every day.

And of course the undertone is that Cannella is single-handedly responsible for this, when in fact he's one vote on a five-member council.

Here's my take: Among the nine cities in Stanislaus County, Ceres has done a good job of managing its budget in difficult times. I asked City Manager Brad Kilger for some of the basics. The city's budget is down about 20 percent from its 2006-07 level. The city has eliminated 19 positions.

What the pro-Cannella flier doesn't mention is that one of the reasons Ceres has done a little better than some other cities is that it has a sales tax for public safety. Measure H was put on the Ceres ballot in 2007 and overwhelmingly approved by city voters. The campaign mailer wasn't wrong; it just left out some key facts.

The mailer also claimed that "As mayor, Anthony Cannella worked to keep students safe and lower the dropout rate." A little stretch, but I do think that Ceres schools and the city, including the police, have worked more closely than in many communities.

As for Cannella working "across party lines to create a multi-agency task force" against gangs, I would note that local council and supervisorial seats are all nonpartisan, so working across party lines isn't really a distinction.

All in all, this mailer features glittering generalities, working best for those with limited knowledge of how local government operates.

Next I received a hit piece against Cannella from the California State Council of Service Employees, which is one of those "independent expenditure" committees that cause so much havoc in elections. This piece was neither paid for nor authorized by Cannella's opponent, Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of Salinas. Her name isn't mentioned. This piece is all about rejecting Cannella.

And if there were some statements in the pro-Cannella piece that stretched the truth, there are some whoppers in this one that amount to outright lies. Most troubling is that some of them attribute their claims to Modesto Bee articles.

The theme is that Cannella's taxes forced us out of our community, showing an unnamed family on an unnamed street standing in front of a house made of bricks -- noteworthy because there aren't many houses like that in the valley.

The first allegation -- that Cannella "tripled our water bills," cites a Bee article from Oct. 25, 2005. I looked that news story up in our files. It states:

"The City Council on Monday night joined Turlock in a $79 million plan to funnel treated water from the Tuolumne River into city faucets.

"Residents will see their monthly water bills nearly triple to pay for the project, from $15.30 to $42.90, if it is built.

"The council's unanimous vote devotes up to $2.2 million to the Turlock Irrigation District to design the surface water treatment plant. Turlock's share is $3.8 million, according to a TID report.

"Other cities could join the project, which would reduce Turlock's and Ceres' costs."

To bring you up to date, that water treatment plant is still being studied. And the news story didn't say water rates had been tripled; it said they could triple by the time the plant is built.

The facts: Ceres did not raise its water rates between 1997 and 2008. In December 2008, the council approved a series of rate increases that has raised the rate from $15.28 per month to $28.19 per month. Ceres, like other valley cities, is converting to metered rates, as required by the state.

The next claim, that Cannella "raised our sewer rates -- 3 times more than businesses," cites another Bee article, but is based in incomplete information. Businesses pay sewer bills based on volume (metered rates) while residents pay a flat rate, so comparisons are shaky.

My bottom line: This mailer is riddled with innuendo and inaccuracies.

My purpose here is not to attack or defend Cannella or Caballero. And I used examples from this race only because they showed up in my mailbox.

My point is this: Be skeptical of all campaign claims, in whatever form. Be particularly wary of those that come from these outside committees, meaning that the information is not approved by the candidates. They tend to be the most brazen and misleading.

Some of the most exaggerated statements are made for and against the state propositions. The outcomes will be never be as bad or as good as the advocates claim.

Unless you've had an opportunity to study the issue thoroughly or you know both candidates well and their records, believe this stuff at your own risk.

As I've said before, politics used to have seasons, but now it's never ending. Modestans will be electing City Council members again in November 2011. Brad Hawn signaled way last fall that he was interested in replacing Jim Ridenour as mayor. At that time, both Hawn and Ridenour will be forced out by the city's two-term limit. Hawn is officially in the race now, and Ridenour has endorsed him.

Meanwhile, Dave Cogdill Jr. has filed the preliminary papers showing he's interested in running for Modesto City Council District 6 -- the northeast section of the city. Cogdill has spoken up recently at meetings involving the Mello-Roos taxes in Village I.

Thirteen people have applied for Modesto City Council District 5, which will be vacant when Kristen Olsen steps down to go to the Assembly. I would think they would be regularly attending council meetings in preparation for the interviews later this month with the council's three-member selection committee. That wasn't the case last Tuesday. Hint, hint.

Sly is editor of The Bee's Opinions pages. Contact her at jsly@modbee.com or 578-2317.

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