West Contra Costa school bond program draws massive campaign spending by contract recipients
By Robert Rogers
Contra Costa Times
RICHMOND -- Roughly $2.8 million has poured into campaigns to pass West Contra Costa school district bond measures since 2002, the bulk from groups that have benefited from the massive taxpayer-funded construction projects that the successful ballot measures have unleashed, according to an analysis of campaign finance records by this newspaper.
The bulk of the contributions have come from construction companies, architectural firms and organized labor, groups that have been heavily involved in building and renovating dozens of schools throughout the district thanks to the $1.44 billion the measures have freed up since 2002. If voters approve Measure H, a $270 million proposal on the June 3 ballot, it would be the seventh bond for school construction in the district passed since 1998. Those measures have saddled West Contra Costa property owners with the largest tax burden in the county.
The money to fund the political campaigns goes into For the Children of West County, a political campaign committee, according to Elections Office records.
Campaign finance records available from the office date back only to 2002, so it is unclear how much money was spent to support the first two bond measures passed in 1998 and 2000.
But the cash volume into the campaign committee appears to be unprecedented for school bond campaigns in Contra Costa County. Election services specialist Olga Hernandez said the office was unaware of any other campaign finance committee for school bonds with contribution totals approaching those For the Children of West County.
The massive campaign spending to win bonds worth hundreds of millions for construction work has raised eyebrows.
"When (politicians) ask these groups to support a campaign, they aren't going to say no; they don't want to lose their job," said Bob Campbell, a former Richmond councilman and assemblyman. "There is a vested interest. No one just gives money out of the goodness of their heart. I think everybody is paying to play."
While the campaign contributions and construction costs have drawn concern, voters have consistently supported the school bond measures, and proponents point to an array of gleaming new schools that have burnished an education infrastructure that was in deep disrepair a decade ago.
Tom Butt, a Richmond councilman and owner of architectural firm Interactive Resources, has donated $67,750 to the campaign committee, and his firm has received contracts for more than $9 million in work, he said.
"The people who are most willing to make a contribution are those who are involved in the contract," Butt said. "That's just the way it is. (West County) is not unique."
Butt credited school board President Charles Ramsey with spearheading the bond program and the prodigious campaign fundraising that helped sell them to voters.
"He is a fundraiser," Butt said. "When Charles comes to you, you hang on to your billfold."
And Butt's firm is small potatoes compared with other major donors.
The Seville Group Inc., a Pasadena-based construction-management firm that has overseen the bond-funded school building projects, has pumped about $250,000 into the campaign committee, according to campaign finance records. WLC Architects, based in Rancho Cucamonga, has contributed more than $361,000. The school district has not provided records requested by this newspaper on how much money the two firms have made from the bond program.
SGI has also contributed to political campaigns backing Ramsey -- for his current run for mayor of Richmond and an unsuccessful 2002 bid for Assembly but not for his school board campaigns -- and school board member Madeline Kronenberg. WLC also has been a major donor to Kronenberg's campaigns. The two board members run the powerful Facilities Subcommittee, which approves construction cost increases and makes contract recommendations to the full board.
The cycle of big political spending and bigger work contracts has drawn criticism from some.
Charley Cowens, a member of the district's Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee and a Kensington resident, said he won't support the latest bond proposal. For the Children of West County has collected $276,000 so far this year to campaign for Measure H, according to campaign records.
"To me, the only reason these bonds are passed is this totally legal kickback system," Cowens said. "The more money (contractors) have, the more money they have to contribute."
Campbell said he recommended SGI to school district officials in 1999 and said that at the time it had a good record of keeping costs down.
But Campbell added that campaign finance reform is needed, particularly to limit the influence of big donors to campaign committees such as For the Children of West County.
WLC Architects Vice President Kevin MacQuarrie said his firm has been working for the district since 1998 but declined to specify how much money it has made on the jobs. WLC is working on several current projects for the district.
He said the work in the district is "efficient and transparent" and praised the board's "vision, which is to provide the highest-quality school facilities in the state."
As for the political campaign contributions, he said it's business as usual.
"Part of what WLC does for clients is help support their bond program efforts, because it benefits the children of that district," he said. "There is absolutely no pay to play."
SGI has a checkered history, including at least 19 violations of Fair Political Practices Commission rules and charges that it wined and dined school district officials in San Diego to score lucrative contracts.
"On the whole, SGI has done as good a job as any other construction-management firm has done, in my experience," Butt said. "In general, I don't particularly care for construction managers, but I am not going to single them out. They've all got problems, all got inefficiencies."
SGI did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Ramsey defended the bond program, and SGI, which he said has done a good job managing construction projects.
"If (critics) have evidence, bring a lawsuit," Ramsey said. "The (bond) program is well-run, it's well-managed. I'm not an expert, (but) the info we have is not raising any red flags."
Ramsey acknowledged that district staff recently recommended switching from SGI to a different firm, which had a lower bid, for part of the construction-management job during hearings last year. But the board opted to disregard staff advice.
"(Staff) wanted to start somebody new, but it didn't make any sense to me," Ramsey said. "It wasn't wise in my estimation to not renew a contract when there was no appearance of problems."
Kronenberg agreed, saying staff recommended a switch "for the sake of change" but had no compelling reason. She said allegations of campaign missteps and other violations in other districts don't affect SGI's performance in West County.
"The circumstances SGI found themselves in somewhere else is none of my business," she said. "I have seen nothing to indicate that they have done anything but a good job here."
Staff writer Theresa Harrington contributed to this report. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.