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More Alameda Turmoil

As the special election for a schools parcel tax neared, supporters and opponents exchanged charges of illegality.

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Whatever the outcome of this week's special election in Alameda, the battle over Measure A, the school parcel tax, has been another example of increasing tumult on the island. The opposing sides of the campaign have publicly attacked each other, repeatedly. And, most recently, they've filed complaints with the state's campaign watchdog accusing each other of improprieties. Each has denied wrongdoing.

Michael Robles-Wong, chairman of the Alameda Save Our Schools (SOS) campaign, the pro-parcel tax group, filed a complaint with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission late last month, alleging that the Committee Against Measure A illegally issued robocalls that failed to identify to voters who paid for the calls.

The Committee Against Measure A, meanwhile, announced that Leland Traiman, one of the leaders of that campaign, had filed an FPPC complaint against two pro-A campaign leaders; the campaign's political consultants; Alameda schools Superintendent Kirsten Vital; and Gray Harris, the teacher who appears in one of the ads. Traiman claimed the district subsidized Save Our Schools' campaign efforts by providing classroom space and a teacher for a campaign mailer in violation of state law. Representatives with the Committee Against Measure A, however, didn't provide a copy of the complaint when a reporter requested it.

Measure A would replace the school district's existing and soon-to-sunset taxes and increase the amount collected from $7 million to $12 million annually. It requires a two-thirds vote to pass. The outcome may be close because a similar school district measure last June fell just short of the two-thirds requirement, garnering 65.62 percent of the vote. Measure A, however, was crafted with extensive community input, including business owners who declined to endorse last year's Measure E. Proponents argued in this year's campaign that Alameda schools will have to endure devastating cuts without the tax measure, while opponents said it was unfair because it gave discounts to some large property owners, such as Alameda Towne Center and the Oakland Raiders.

A spokesperson for the pro-Measure A group called Traiman's claims that the school district subsidized the campaign "baseless" and said the campaign has complied with the law. Vital also denied that the district provided the pro-A campaign either free space or a teacher. She said the campaign requested, paid for, and received a permit to shoot their photos after school hours.

A copy of a permit supplied by the school district shows that the campaign paid a charge of $12.25 to access a room at Otis Elementary School for a photo shoot between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on December 9, 2010. The district also supplied a copy of a second permit for another photo shoot at Alameda High School on the afternoon of December 10.

"The photos were not taken during the school day and no public funds were used to create the campaign flyer," Vital said. "SOS, or any other community organization, may apply for use of district facilities pursuant to the Civic Center Act and board policy."

When asked whether Measure A's opponents violated the law with the robocalls, Traiman said that mistakes made by volunteer campaign activists are "understandable," but said no state laws were broken by the Committee Against Measure A because the calls came from out of state. "Robocalls originating in California are prohibited," Traiman noted. "If they originate from outside the state, they are not. California regulators have no jurisdiction over calls which originate from out of state or else those calls would also be prohibited."

He said he paid for the calls independent of the campaign, supplying a reporter with a copy of a to-be-filed disclosure form that listed the calls as an independent expenditure. A recent call received by a reporter at her home included a message saying it had been paid for by Traiman, whereas earlier anti-A calls the reporter received at home did not say who paid for them.

State law prohibits campaigns from making mass phone calls without disclosing who paid for or authorized the calls. Robles-Wong's complaint alleges that Traiman, who is identified in the complaint as the secretary of the Committee Against Measure A, told participants in a February 22 public forum that he paid for the calls, "but that he had not included identifying information because he was being charged by the word and including the identifying information would have been too expensive."

According to the web site of Winning Calls, the Colorado-based firm that was used to make the calls, the company requires campaigns that use its services to sign a disclaimer saying they are conducting their campaign legally. An FPPC spokesperson said that while the department can't comment on a specific situation, as a general rule committees are prohibited from contracting with any phone bank vendor that doesn't disclose the information required by state law.

Violations of campaign finance laws carry penalties of up to $5,000 each, the FPPC spokesperson said. The state law that prohibits school districts from supplying funds, services, supplies or equipment to urge support or defeat of a ballot measure carries a fine of up to $1,000 and possible jail time for violators.

Committee Against Measure A spokesman David Howard filed a similar complaint against the school district in 2010, alleging it illegally used public funds to pay for mailers supporting the Measure E parcel tax campaign. The FPPC closed the case without charges, saying that while some of the language used in the mailer was "inflammatory," it didn't "fall squarely within the parameters of a prohibited mailing."

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