A Shebreh Kalatari-Johnson yard sign on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission has dismissed an allegation that Santa Cruz County supervisor candidate Kalantari-Johnson improperly coordinated with a political group called Santa Cruz Together during an event in early May. Yard signs appear on West Cliff Drive. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

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Get informed on the June 7 local election

SANTA CRUZ >> A state commission on Friday dismissed an allegation that Santa Cruz County supervisor candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson violated campaign finance and disclosure rules at a political event at a Westside Santa Cruz winery.

To help inform voters about campaign finance rules, Santa Cruz Local looked into the recent complaint against Kalantari-Johnson and reviewed new campaign finance filings released in late May.

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In the June 7 race for District 3 Santa Cruz County supervisor, Ami Chen Mills is running against Santa Cruz City Council members Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings. 

Chen Mills filed a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint on May 17 that alleged that Kalantari-Johnson violated campaign finance rules during a Santa Cruz Together event on May 2 at Stockwell Cellars on Fair Avenue in Santa Cruz. At the event, a Santa Cruz Together leader gave instructions to attendees on how to donate to support Santa Cruz Together’s efforts to help elect Kalantari-Johnson to the county board of supervisors, according to an audio recording.

In the complaint, Chen Mills wrote that Santa Cruz Together “representatives spoke while the candidate was present about plans to help the candidate’s campaign, how mailers were needed and how they could contribute unlimited amounts.” 

California’s Political Reform Act requires political campaigners to disclose contribution sources and payments. If a political committee coordinates with a candidate on a mailer or an event promoting the candidate, then any costs must be reported by the committee and the candidate. Chen Mills wrote that she believed Kalantari-Johnson’s presence violated state rules on coordination of campaigns. Santa Cruz Together is not listed as a respondent in the complaint.

The Fair Political Practices Commission looked at the evidence and determined that the complaint did not warrant an investigation, wrote Jay Wierenga, a commission spokesman, in an email to Santa Cruz Local on Friday.

Santa Cruz Together representatives said they did not incur any costs related to the event. The group did not report any money spent on the event, according to the most recent campaign filings.

Santa Cruz Together has supported several campaigns in recent elections including the successful recalls of Santa Cruz City Councilmembers Chris Krohn and Drew Glover. The group recently sent a mailer to city residents that promoted Kalantari-Johnson and city ballot Measure E regarding district elections.

Santa Cruz Together recently sent this mailer to support Santa Cruz County Supervisor candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and City of Santa Cruz Measure E. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

What happened at the event?

Santa Cruz Together hosted an open and publicized event May 2 at Stockwell Cellars in Santa Cruz to promote Kalantari-Johnson’s supervisor bid and to support Measure E. Measure E would institute a directly-elected mayor in the City of Santa Cruz and six council districts.

Kalantari-Johnson gave a speech but did not solicit donations, according to an audio recording of the event by Santa Cruz resident Ann Simonton.  The recording was included in the complaint. 

At the event, Santa Cruz Together Chairperson Lynn Renshaw announced plans to produce mailers in support of Kalantari-Johnson and Measure E. Renshaw also asked attendees to donate to Santa Cruz Together, according to the recording.

In a phone call this week, Kalantari-Johnson said she did not help, plan or coordinate the May 2 event. “I was invited to attend the event, and I attended the event as many other candidates do with independent entities,” Kalantari-Johnson said. She added that she did not help, plan or coordinate Santa Cruz Together’s recent mailer. “I had no idea what it entailed until it arrived in my mailbox,” Kalantari-Johnson said.

Kalantari-Johnson said that she did not violate any rules of the Fair Political Practices Commission. “Ms. Chen Mills either doesn’t understand the law or this is a political stunt,” Kalantari-Johnson said.

Renshaw, the Santa Cruz Together leader, wrote in an email to Santa Cruz Local that her group “did not coordinate with Shebreh’s campaign committee on anything.” The May 2 event “was a very standard political event of Santa Cruz Together supporters. All existing FPPC rules were followed,” Renshaw wrote. 

Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

From left, Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson are the candidates for District 3 Santa Cruz County Supervisor in the June 7 primary election. (Photos by Devi Pride, Andrew Rogers and J. Guevara)

What is Santa Cruz Together?

Santa Cruz Together is a political committee formed in 2018 originally to oppose Measure M. The measure proposed rent control and stricter eviction rules in the City of Santa Cruz. It failed that year with about 38% of the vote.

Since then, Santa Cruz Together broadened its focus and became a “general purpose” committee. It spent money to support the March 2020 recall of former Santa Cruz City Council members Chris Krohn and Drew Glover, according to campaign finance records. City voters recalled Krohn and Glover in that election.

The group is a “coalition of neighbors, leaders, and organizations who have come together to advocate for forward-thinking policies and people that protect our quality of life and Santa Cruz’s vibrant character,” according to its website. The volunteer group is funded by hundreds of donors who are mostly Santa Cruz County residents, according to campaign records.  

In the June 7 election, Santa Cruz Together is campaigning as a “general purpose” committee to support Kalantari-Johnson’s supervisor bid and City of Santa Cruz Measure E, related to district elections. 

What are the rules?

In California, there are several types of committees that accept and spend money for political purposes. These include:

  • General purpose committees: These committees are typically formed around an issue such as housing. These committees are usually active for several years and campaign for or against multiple ballot measures and candidates. There are no contribution limits for local “general purpose” committees. Santa Cruz Together is a “general purpose” committee.
  • Candidate controlled committees: These committees are controlled by the candidate. For example, Kalantari-Johnson accepts donations through a committee that she controls.  
    • Santa Cruz County law prohibits donations of more than $525 to county supervisor candidates or their controlled committees. 
    • County law also prohibits donations of more than $1,000 from labor unions and businesses to county supervisor candidates or their controlled committees. 

California’s Political Reform Act requires “general purpose” committees such as Santa Cruz Together to report two types of spending related to candidates:

  • Independent expenditures: “General purpose” committees can spend money on advertisements, mailers and other similar communications to advocate for a candidate. When these efforts are not coordinated with the candidate, the committee must report the spending as an “independent expenditure.” The candidate does not have to report the spending.
  • Nonmonetary contributions: When “general purpose” committees spend money on advertisements, mailers and other similar communications to advocate for a candidate — in coordination with the candidate — that spending is considered a nonmonetary contribution to the candidate, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission. That contribution must be reported by the committee and the candidate. 

A candidate is allowed to make a public appearance at an event hosted by a “general purpose” committee, the FPPC manual states. The event is not considered a reportable nonmonetary contribution as long as the committee did not discuss details of the event with the candidate in advance.

Chen Mills took issue that Kalantari-Johnson was present when a Santa Cruz Together leader told attendees about plans and cost for mailers to support Kalantari-Johnson and asked attendees for donations to Santa Cruz Together. 

If a committee’s mailer is coordinated with a candidate, then the cost of the mailer must be reported by the candidate and the committee as a nonmonetary contribution, according to Fair Political Practices Commission rules.

In recent weeks, Santa Cruz Together has sent residents at least one mailer in support of Kalantari-Johnson and Measure E. The group reported $11,250 of independent expenditures on “campaign literature” to support Kalantari-Johnson. 

Kalantari-Johnson did not report any nonmonetary contributions from Santa Cruz Together for the period April 24 to May 21. Kalantari-Johnson would be required to report the cost of a Santa Cruz Together mailer if she coordinated with the group on the plan. Kalantari-Johnson and Renshaw, the Santa Cruz Together leader, said there was no coordination.

According to an FPPC manual, an advertisement, mailer or other similar political communication is “coordinated” if it meets any of these criteria:

  • It was made at the candidate’s request or suggestion.
  • The candidate made decisions or had an agreement about the content, timing, location, audience or other details.

Penalties for violation of the Political Reform Act can include up to a $5,000 fine per violation. Factors to determine the penalty include harm to the public, intent and precedent, Wierenga said.

Other allegations

The FPPC complaint filed by Chen Mills stems from earlier, broader accusations by Simonton against Santa Cruz Together, Kalantari-Johnson and other Santa Cruz City Council members who attended Santa Cruz Together’s May 2 event.

Simonton sent a May 10 letter to Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell that alleged a Brown Act violation because four council members were at the event. The Brown Act requires council members to conduct most city business in open, public meetings with posted agendas. 

Simonton also listed potential campaign finance violations, similar to the complaint she and Chen Mills submitted to the Fair Political Practices Commission. Simonton aired her allegations during a May 10 Santa Cruz City Council meeting.

City Attorney Tony Condotti wrote in a statement that there was no Brown Act violation because the meeting was:

  • Open and publicized.
  • Held to address Measure E, a topic of local community concern.
  • Organized by Santa Cruz Together, not the local government.
  • There was no allegation that council members discussed city business with each other.

In a May 12 email to Rosell, Condotti also wrote that Simonton’s allegations of campaign finance violations “appear to be largely based on speculation and conjecture.”

Shandra Handley, who works at the District Attorney’s Office, wrote to Condotti in a May 18 email: “Based on your responses and a review of the law, we have determined that there were no legal violations by any Santa Cruz City Council Member or Santa Cruz Together.”

Handley added, “At this point, there are no apparent criminal violations warranting a further investigation.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about contribution limits. Santa Cruz County law prohibits donations of more than $525 from individuals to county supervisor candidates or their controlled committees. Business and labor unions can donate up to $1,000 to county supervisor candidates or their controlled committees. Ami Chen Mills filed the Fair Political Practices Commission complaint alone. An earlier version of this story stated that another person also filed the complaint.

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Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.