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Anonymous city council campaign mailer sparks backlash in Sonoma

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California’s campaign watchdog agency is investigating a complaint about a postcard sent anonymously to some Sonoma Valley residents last week regarding the upcoming City Council election.

The postcard describes Sonoma City Hall as “in turmoil – primarily due to a polarized City Council,” and recommends three candidates, all of whom have said they don’t know who sent it. The anonymous mailing arrived in mailboxes last Thursday and Friday; not all residents got it.

In postings on social media, residents including Amy Harrington, a councilmember who is not up for re-election, have said the postcard violates the law because it doesn’t identify the sender. Many also criticized the postcard’s tone.

“We did find this in the system so someone filed (a complaint). Enforcement opened an investigation,” Jay Wierenga, communications director of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said in an email Tuesday.

“Each complaint is taken under review to determine its merit, on whether or not it merits an investigation. If not, it is dismissed, if so, an investigation/case begins. Penalties for violating (the Political Reform Act) can include a fine of up to $5,000 per violation,” Wierenga said.

Without commenting about the investigation of the postcard, Wierenga said in general, investigations involve factors such as interviewing those involved and witnesses for testimony, looking at documents such as emails, bank records or committee campaign filings.

“You begin gathering, looking for, finding information to see whether a violation of the Political Reform Act occurred,” the spokesman said.

The postcard reads, “We need new blood on the council who can be ethical, objective and coherent … Let the planning commission be respected rather than the puppet for every project being appealed to the city council.”

The postcard, with a photo of the Sonoma Valley on the flip side, also contains recommendations for candidates Jack Ding, James Cribb and Chris Petlock.

The postcard’s tone and the fact that it was sent anonymously triggered a strong response on social media, though it is unclear whether any regulations were violated.

“First of all, anything under 200 pieces is not dealt with under the Act,” Wierenga said. The number of postcards sent out is currently unknown.

Other factors that come into play when determining whether a violation has been committed are currently unknown, such as whether the entity behind the postcard spent $1,000 or more in a calendar year.

According to the FPPC website, “an individual or entity such as a corporation that makes one or more independent expenditures to pay for a communication … totaling $1,000 or more in a calendar year that is not coordinated with the affected candidate or committee, qualifies as a committee and must file reports under (the Political Reform Act).”

The remaining candidates for City Council are Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti, incumbent candidate Rachel Hundley, and residents Logan Harvey and Jack Wagner.

Councilmember Amy Harrington posted a photo of the postcard on Facebook Oct. 5.

Alongside the photo, she posted, “It violates the law because it doesn’t say who sent it... It’s pathetic and mean spirited. I hope Jack Ding, James Cribb and Chris Petlock, who are supported by this anonymous mail, denounce this trash.”

Candidate Ding said, “I have no idea who even sent it or why. I have requested that the city help investigate and minimize the negative impact on the campaigns.” He also said he was in the process of reporting the mailing to the FPPC.

The question of the anonymous mailing falls under the purview of the FPPC, not the city.

Candidate Petlock said, “I don’t abide by any kind of rule-breaking. I have no idea who did this. People who endorse me or any of the candidates should be brave enough to put their name on it. We don’t need any monkey business in our elections. I’d rather not be endorsed at all than be endorsed by some anonymous individual.”

Petlock described the postcard as part of a disheartening pattern in the election. In August, incumbent City Council candidate Rachel Hundley got an email threatening to expose allegedly compromising photos from her past in an attempt to get her to drop her re-election bid.

Hundley fought back, posting a YouTube video in which she said the group was trying to “silence another strong female voice by scaring me out of this election.” The video gained national attention.

Hundley is continuing to pursue re-election.

Also, multiple tips about run-ins with the law in Petlock’s long-ago past were anonymously sent to the Index-Tribune in August. Petlock responded in detail at the time, describing himself as a changed man.

“This is something new. I think our local politics have begun to reflect our national politics,” said James Cribb, the third candidate recommended in the postcard.

“We live in a free country with free speech. Anyone is free to speak their mind, but they should identify themselves,” Cribb said.

Harrington said, “It’s basically a big city playbook of standard tricks. They are not novel, but they are new to Sonoma. And very unfortunate.

“I think the reason people do these things is because in other places they work. I don’t think it will work in Sonoma, but we will find out on Nov. 6,” Harrington said.

Reach Janis Mara at janismara@sonomanews.com.