COURSEY: Valuable lessons in the mail

Campaign mailers usually are a positive in only one way: They increase the heft of the recycle bin. But a pair of mailers sent out this election season by several of Santa Rosa's public employee unions actually can be praised for an even larger contribution to society: They provide us with what's known as a "teachable moment."

The mailers ended up costing two of the unions $1,000 apiece in fines, since they violated Santa Rosa's campaign finance laws. But even though the lawmen and their fellow employees didn't follow the law, I believe we should be grateful to them all for all that this episode can teach us.

For example:

The city of Santa Rosa will actually enforce its campaign laws in a timely manner.

When City Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre (who happens to support candidates other than those supported by the mailers) noticed that a piece of campaign literature largely paid for by police officers' unions didn't include all of the identifying information required by city law, she reported the apparent violation to the City Clerk's office. City officials looked into the matter and took quick action to fine the group responsible for the piece. In the course of their investigation, they discovered violations on another mailer sponsored by the firefighters' union, and fined them, too. The police and firefighter union representatives admitted their mistakes and agreed to pay the fines. If this had been a complaint to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the investigation would have taken months and the fine – if any – would have come long after the election was decided. This is what government efficiency looks like.

Campaign finance disclosure laws are a valuable tool.

Santa Rosa's campaign finance laws require that all campaign advertising include the identity of the top three donors responsible for funding that advertising. At a time when "independent" committees are increasing active – anonymously – in campaigns ranging from the Cotati-Rohnert Park School Board to state propositions to the presidential race, it is important for voters to know who is responsible for the money behind the candidates. A statewide effort to require such disclosure, known as the California Disclose Act, has languished in the Legislature, but Santa Rosa has the requirements in place.

Cops have a keen sense of irony.

The offending mailer put out by the police union carried the notation that it came from the "Committee for Civil City Hall." It touted the group's favored candidates' pledge to behave civilly toward each other on the City Council, and recommended a slate of candidates to "change the negative way things are done at City Hall." On the flip side, the mailer featured biting attacks against two other candidates.

Independent committee names often are aliases for familiar players.

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