Things get squirrely in Goleta around election time, and this season, allegations of being un-American and unconstitutional were aired at City Council in early October. The fallout has landed on the Goleta Chamber of Commerce this time — in the past mysterious mailers targeted candidates and large sums unexpectedly appeared in campaign coffers. But now, because the chamber receives grants from the city, it finds itself unable to endorse in the City Council election. And that’s a consequence of a public access television show that Councilmember Roger Aceves watches.
In June, the city was handing out its small grants of less than $5,000. Among the proposed recipients was the only Spanish-language show on public access TV, Las Noticias en Confianza. The show’s host, Sylvia Uribe (a onetime contributor to the Indy), spoke to the council about how Las Noticias presents news, as during the fires and floods, to inform the Latino community. Aceves said he watched it to “keep my Spanish going,” but that he’s seen the show make political endorsements. What if the city logo or name were connected to a Las Noticias endorsement? he asked.
Uribe denied her show made endorsements; they only presented candidates, she said, and not just those she agreed with politically. Undeterred, Aceves insisted that her show’s nonprofit status be checked and that it be barred in the future from making endorsements on the city’s dime. At the time, Aceves was running unchallenged for a fourth term; the final filing date was in August, and he remains unopposed.
But his concern was joined by councilmembers Kyle Richards and Stuart Kasdin, who agreed the appearance of using city funds politically was inappropriate. Richards commented on the difficulty of keeping funds separate, and Aceves noted the city didn’t have the staff to enforce it or many who could watch a show in Spanish. City attorney Michael Jenkins explained that the current grant agreements bar city funds from being used for political purposes, but Aceves continued to press the issue, suggesting that Las Noticias put the TV station’s nonprofit status in jeopardy. If it were a political action committee, like the Sierra Club’s, he said, it’d be different.
The topic had arisen last year, and another grant program, known as “support to other agencies,” had developed an agreement that stated city money could not be used to “endorse, campaign, or fundraise” for a council candidate, said city staffer Carmen Nichols. Councilmember Michael Bennett asked if that would include a political action committee, which Jenkins said it would not, unless they included “and affiliate organizations” in the agreements. “I think we’re going down a rabbit hole,” said Bennett at that point.
Las Noticias was pulled from the list of those receiving grants, and the council unanimously adopted the language to exclude nonprofit organizations and their affiliates from endorsing, campaigning, or fundraising for city elected officials if they received a city grant.
Goleta’s Chamber of Commerce predates the city by a half-century. It actively promotes tourism to Goleta and its small businesses, as well as the city’s economic development. In past races, it endorsed Roger Aceves and Michael Bennett, as well as former councilmembers Tony Vallejo and Eric Onnen. The latter two took to the council floor in early October to express their opinion of the council’s actions, Vallejo calling it “un-American” and Onnen a “taint” on the election plus self-interest by the council. Chamber board member and attorney Trevor Large charged the restriction was “unconstitutional,” and the chamber’s chairman of the board, Hallie Avolio, threatened litigation because the action had not been described on any agenda.
At that meeting, the chamber was up for $150,000 in a grant to its visitor services. It started the night at $62,500 and ended up receiving the whole amount. But Goletans won’t see the chamber endorsing either Paula Perotte or Michael Bennett in the ongoing race for mayor. Due to a “new, controversial, and unique policy decision,” the chamber’s “Business Journal” stated, it will not endorse. However, the text notes that Perotte often votes with the chamber “but has voted with us fewer times than Mr. Bennett.”
Las Noticias did get its funding, $2,000 for its three volunteers and one staff member, after documenting that TVSB is its legal 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor. Sylvia Uribe continues to provide Spanish-language news at Channel 17 on every other Wednesday at 8 p.m.