The December of a presidential election year is usually an optimistic time for local governments – the various city councils throughout the county, where the electeds receive a small stipend for what normally amounts to a full-time job.
There are farewells to electeds who are departing, either through retirement or because they didn’t win re-election. There are swearing-in ceremonies for those taking office for the first time, with proud family members in attendance, taking photos as the elected promises to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. There are speeches about how the new official plans to help their city and in non-pandemic times, there might be a reception for the newcomers – a Costco sheet cake, maybe some punch.
In Marina? Just a few weeks after two new members were sworn in at an event that can best be described as acrimonious, those same new councilmembers have also been forced to retain attorneys to defend themselves in an investigation in which the city has also hired outside counsel – because, I guess, it would be awkward for the city attorney to investigate the people who make policy for the city.
At the heart of the investigation: whether new councilmembers Cristina Medina Dirksen and Kathy Biala botched the city’s inelegantly written campaign finance ordinance by accepting a few donations that exceeded the $200 limit, and then upon discovering their mistakes, immediately returning the overage, when the overages were apparently supposed to go to the city’s General Fund. And in Biala’s case, whether she inadvertently accepted a donation from an organization – also not allowed by that new campaign finance ordinance – and again promptly returned it upon discovering her mistake.
Former Councilmember David Brown, an attorney, is representing Biala. He says that she inadvertently accepted a $250 donation through her website, and then returned the $50 to the donor. Her husband, acting as her treasurer, also deposited a $200 check mailed in by Public Water Now. When Biala – a longtime community volunteer active on water issues – was made aware of the provision that donations couldn’t come from organizations, she returned the money.
The complaint against Biala came from Brad Imamura, a Marina resident who has the distinction of running for two conflicting offices – the Marina Council and the Marina Coast Water District at the same time this election – and losing both, and from Bob Nolan, a retired Marina police commander who ran against Mayor Bruce Delgado in 2018 and lost.
The complaint against Medina Dirksen was filed, Brown says, by Margaret Davis, a supporter of Gail Morton, whom Medina Dirksen defeated in the race. Medina Dirksen says she accepted two donations from two donors’ business accounts – a no no – and also accepted $50 over the allowed amount from a recurring donor. She returned all improper donations and overages.
And now she’s in fundraising mode, because in addition to returning the donations, the ordinance mandates the recipient also has to donate the full amount of improper donations to the city’s General Fund.
As goofy as this situation sounds – investigations requiring all parties to spend a lot of time and effort over what amounts to not a lot of money – there are serious consequences. The city, through its counsel, could opt to bring criminal charges that, if sustained, would result in misdemeanor convictions against and prevent them from holding office for five years.
“It imposes Draconian penalties and there’s no requirement, as there is with the state law, that the violation was willful and knowing,” Brown says. “Mistakes are a defense at the state level, but not in the Marina ordinance.”
Back to that Dec. 1 swearing-in ceremony: Councilmember David Burnett, recently appointed to a vacant seat, opposed Biala’s swearing-in because of the campaign finance situation. “To hear the explanation that was offered by Ms. Biala, it really troubles me,” Burnett said at the meeting. “I am protesting this swearing in.”
There’s a lot to be troubled about in Marina politics, but Kathy Biala shouldn’t appear on that list.