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Escondido settles campaign mailers lawsuit

ESCONDIDO — Finding that city officials may have violated state law, Escondido settled a lawsuit over campaign mailers the city created and distributed in Nov. 2012.

Former Escondido mayor Jerry Harmon filed a lawsuit against the city in March, claiming that City Council unlawfully used public funds for mailers that supported two propositions presented to voters at the Nov. 2012 municipal election.

In October 2012, City Council approved City Manager Clay Phillips’s request for $20,000 for “educational and informational publications on upcoming city ballot measures.”

The mailers consisted of information about Prop N, a proposed general plan update that included changes to some land use designations, and Prop P, a measure that would change Escondido from a general law city to a charter city.

The campaign flyer stated that Prop N would “preserve neighborhoods”, “attract higher paying” jobs, and “protect the city’s character” while Prop P would “transfer power from the state legislature in Sacramento to the city of Escondido” and potentially save up to $16 million to be used to increase police and fire protection and fix streets.

The mailers were sent to Escondido residents in their utility bills before the election.

Voters passed Prop N and rejected Prop P.

The lawsuit alleged that the mailers were biased in favor of both measures and designed to influence voters. The suit claimed that the city violated California’s Constitution and Government Code by paying for the campaign materials with city funds. “I felt they had broken the law by spending taxpayer money illegally,” said Harmon.

City Council agreed in closed session in November to settle the lawsuit, according to deputy city attorney Andrea Velasquez.

A city press release announcing the settlement on Dec. 24 stated, “The City believes there is a possibility that a court might agree that state law was violated in connection with the preparation and distribution of the mailer.”

The city agreed to pay Harmon’s attorney fees, $36,500 total, and create rules and guidelines for future mailers to ensure that the city abides by state laws.

“I’m hoping that the publicity that it has generated will cause elected officials to think twice about how they spend taxpayer money,” said Harmon.