An Irvine development company finds itself in the middle of a controversy involving its campaign donations to a mayor and a city councilman.
But these contributions were not to officeholders in Orange County but farther south.
At issue are contributions of $4,100 each to Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and Councilman John Masson from Pacific Land Investors, which is co-owned by Mark Ferraro of Irvine.
The council members received the maximum donations to one candidate in one election cycle allowed under city law. That's not what's causing the fuss, the timing of the developer's payments is.
Abed and Masson received the money in two installments: half before the council considered a proposed subdivision by Pacific Land Investors in December and the remainder right after the project was approved with a 26 percent reduction in infrastructure fees imposed on the developer.
The San Diego Union-Tribune was told by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission that there's nothing illegal about the contributions, but several in Escondido say they don't pass the smell test.
Simon Mayeski, a longtime employee of the good-government group California Common Cause, told the paper Abed and Masson should return the money so it does not appear they were paid to vote a certain way. The president of the Escondido Democratic Club agreed, saying otherwise developers will believe that's how business is conducted in the city. Councilwoman Olga Diaz, who is challenging Abed for mayor, added such donations make many residents queasy.
The controversy reminds me of what I witnessed covering fast-growing inland cities in the 1980s, when slick Orange County developers would roll into the once sleepy towns, throw money around to council members (reported on state forms and otherwise) and then see their projects approved with little resistance. The giant malls, retail centers and housing tracts you see on either side of the 15 on the way to Vegas are the fruits of those relationships.
Naturally, Abed, Masson and Ferraro see nothing wrong with this.
Abed told the U-T he never made a mental connection between the vote and the donations. Masson said he would have agreed to even lower fees for Pacific Land Investors without its contributions. “I can't be bought and I won't be bought,” he reportedly said. “The fee is overkill. This is about me supporting development that makes sense.”
Ferraro called the criticism “silly,” saying the donations reflect his company's “significant investment in the city by attempting to resurrect several failed projects.”
It is in the best interest of Escondido, he told the U-T, “to have a pro-business city council.” Ferraro has plenty that can receive the council's love. According to online records, he holds active roles in four companies–PLI, Dorea Holdings, Rosewood Holdings and TMC America–and inactive roles in 25 others.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.