More than 90 percent of the $37,696 in the Yes on Measure E campaign chest is from outside Gilroy—most from firms, including one in New York, whose business with the school district exceeds $33 million just since 2011.
Donations to political campaigns by outsiders is legal and happens all the time, according to experts, but it can raise issues, one said.
“The concern always is if there is a wink and a nod; some school districts have done that and have gotten into hot water,” said David Ginsborg, Santa Clara County deputy assessor and a member of several bond oversight committees.
In one case, he said a bond counsel and the bonding firm got into “big trouble” over a quid pro quo deal involving campaign contributions exchanged for favorable considerations.
At Gilroy City Hall, city clerk Shawna Freels handles all municipal elections and said that in the cases of candidates campaigns and bond measures “it’s fairly common” for contributions to come from outside the voting district.
In the Measure E campaign, individual donors gave $3,100 of the total. More than half of that came from out-of-towners.
In all, only about 6 percent of donations to pass the $170 million bond measure to build and fix schools came from people who will pay the resulting property tax hike if E passes.
It will raise taxes by $60 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. That amount would be on top of taxes already being paid to retire Measures I and P, bonds totaling $341 million, including interest, from votes in 2002 and 2008.
In one instance, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alvaro Meza requested a Measure E donation and received $5,000 from the district’s longtime San Jose law firm.
Asked if he had personally solicited big donations from other firms, Alvaro declined to answer and referred the question to school trustee Jaime Rosso.
Both are members of the pro-E committee, Friends of Gilroy Unified School District Supporting Measure E. Rosso is the spokesperson and Meza is the treasurer. The group’s official address is Meza’s Gilroy home on one document filed with the county registrar of voters. On another, the address listed is that of school trustee James Pace, who is identified in a filing and the group’s principal officer.
School trustees and employees are allowed by law to participate in bond measure campaigning and fundraising as long as it’s done on their own time and Gilroy Unified School District resources are not used. The practice is common in California.
Schools Superintendent Debbie Flores and trustee Patricia Midtgaard also are committee members.
The group gives talks to community groups about the need for Measure E, puts up pro-E signs and has sent a mailer to Gilroy households.
Companies that do business with the district also are allowed to make donations to such campaigns.
None of the group’s literature or campaign materials, including its website, identifies its officers or the source of its funding.
The website, gilroymeasuree.com, says only that the group is made up of a “diverse group of local community members.”
More complete information, although only two member names, is in campaign filings required by law, including regular contributions reports filed with the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.
On Tuesday, a county spokesperson confirmed the Yes on E committee might be notified that some of its contribution reporting forms lacked some required details, such as street addresses of contributors.
Anita Torres said that if clerks notice incomplete information on the group’s official filing statements, its treasurer could be notified. However, she said that while it’s mandatory that all requested information be included, the lack of street addresses and names of contributors’ employers does not invalidate the forms.
Rosso could not give specifics about who, if anyone, asked other firms that do business with the school district for donations, saying only that committee members received a list of prospective donors they could approach.
One firm, Seward L. Schreder Construction of Redding, has done in excess of $14 million in business with GUSD since 2011 and donated $10,000 to the Yes on E committee.
“I don’t know individually who would have talked to them, it could have been any number of volunteers who had the list,” Rosso said.
Except for the law firm of Garcia, Hernandez, Sawhney & Bermudez, other firms that donated, including the Schreder firm, did not return calls asking who approached them for money.
Partner Mary Hernandez confirmed it was Meza who asked her law firm. He did it on his own time via his own resources, she said.
As the GUSD’s chief business officer, Meza deals directly with all contracts. Trustees vote on awarding contracts for everything from legal services to construction of bond-funded projects to food supplies and architectural services.
The other firms that contributed, and the amounts given are as follows: Kent Construction of Gilroy, $1,000; Belli Architectural Group, Salinas, $1,000; Artik & Art Architecture, San Jose, $5,000; Aedia Architects, San Jose, $2,500; LPA Architects, Irvine, $5,000; and Sodexo Inc. (food vendors), Buffalo, New York, $5,000.
Individual donors through mid-May were Kim Filice of Gilroy, GUSD Human Resources Director, $500; Steven Kinsella of Morgan Hill, president of Gavilan College, $100; Don and Karen Christopher of Gilroy, $1,000; and Jerome and Kathleen Zalinski of Gustine, $1,500.
The Yes on E group also received about $70 in small contributions whose donors do not have to be identified.