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Wednesday, Jul 11 2012 11:05 PM

City of Bakersfield is in need of campaign finance reform

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    Ken Mettler

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By KEN METTLER

How is it that candidates can run for the Bakersfield City Council, which are virtually unpaid positions, and yet end up owing their political consultants tens of thousands of dollars?

Well, it happens in Bakersfield quite often. For example, Martin Bertram, a City Council candidate in 2010, who was arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and computer hacking, still owes more than $60,000 to his political consultant Western Pacific Research Inc., which is owned by Mark and Cathy Abernathy.

Bertram is now the managing partner of a small computer technology business called IT Works in Bakersfield. Interestingly, the mailing address for the business is the same as Western Pacific Research. One can speculate as to who the "silent" partners are.

Other Bakersfield City Council members are in the same boat. The very likable Jacquie Sullivan still owes the Abernathys more than $43,000, and has since 2009. Councilman Ken Weir has owed the Abernathys more than $39,000 since 2004 from a school board race.

Other local candidates also are in debt to the Abernathys, including Dean Haddock, $11,000 since 2006; Dennis Beebe, $9,000 since 2008; and Kevin McDermott, $12,000 since 1999.

The city of Bakersfield needs to implement campaign finance reform similar to the 2002 Measure K campaign finance reform that voters approved for Kern County elections. Basically, it limits campaign donations to $500 per donor and requires that an unpaid debt be treated as a nonmonetary donation after a reasonable time. The state of California also has a similar rule for unpaid debts after 45 days for state level campaigns.

Currently, campaign debts of city of Bakersfield candidates can be an interest-free loan that allows a small clique to bankroll campaigns, circumvent state-mandated major donor disclosures and to write off campaign expenses as a bad debt. When this reform moves forward, you will hear howls of protest. The argument will be that our First Amendment rights are being trampled. The reality is that those who will be howling are those with a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

Among the howlers will be business interests that rely upon exerting influence on council members to protect their city-enabled monopolies; public employee unions who like the convenience of writing a few large checks to their favorite candidates; and a political consultant who wants to keep getting a cut from disproportionately large campaign budgets or to just purchase the seat outright.

But folks, the world did not end when the voters approved Measure K for county elections --did it?

Bakersfield deserves to have a political campaign environment that has a debate of ideas and not one that is solely the product of who spends the most on mudslinging negative advertising. This not a liberal vs. conservative issue, but rather it is about some simple rules that promote honesty and fair play.

Now is the time for this modest reform to be implemented to rein in some of the corrupting influences that exist in Bakersfield.

Ken Mettler of Bakersfield is the immediate past president of the California Republican Assembly.

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