David Mendez

Judge orders Solomon to change ballot text for Redondo Treasurer election

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City Treasurer Steve Diels. Courtesy City of Redondo Beach

by David Mendez

A Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of incumbent Redondo Beach City Treasurer Steve Diels’ legal challenge over statements made in ballot literature by challenger Eugene Solomon. The judge ruled that three of four statements that describe Diels’ management of the Treasurer’s office were misleading or improperly critical, and must be amended or deleted to comply with state elections law.

Another issue challenged by Diels, regarding Solomon’s ballot designation, has already been amended by Solomon by request of the Redondo Beach City Clerk.

In a filing submitted on Dec. 20, Diels argued that four assertions in Solomon’s ballot statement broke California Elections Code. The four statements say that operational expenses in the Treasurer’s Office have “tripled over the last few years”; accuse Diels of focusing on “political activities and development-project advocacy”; say that the city has engaged in “ineffective single-source contracts” which will be corrected by Solomon’s election; and that Solomon’s system “will remove an internal bias that has fostered wasteful contractual deals.”

At a Dec. 3 hearing, LA County Superior Court Judge Joanna O’Donnell ruled that all but the third statement — which was ruled a statement of Solomon’s intentions — must be corrected or struck.

Days before Thursday’s hearing, Solomon said that “when it comes to the candidate statement…Steve’s objections seem to be to things that were simple statements of fact.” In court, Solomon argued that the statements were allowable because they did not mention Diels by name.

O’Donnell disagreed, concluding that three of Solomon’s four statements challenged by Diels “must be viewed as attacks” on how he manages Redondo’s treasury, and thus “run afoul of Elections Code,” and that two statements are misleading.

Sections 13307 and 13308 of California Elections Code say, in part, that ballot statements must not contain false, slanderous or libelous information, nor shall they make reference to other candidates’ qualifications, character or activities.

Among the statements Diels challenged was that “operational expenses have tripled over the last few years.” In 2013, Diels campaigned as a reformer, planning to cut costs by reducing his own salary and making the City Treasurer position part-time.

When asked to support his argument that operational expenses have tripled, Solomon supplied an image showing the total costs of the treasurer’s office for FY 2015-’16, $151,650, against planned spending of $501,737 in the 2017-’18 budget.

Solomon, Diels said, was “cherry-picking” information by comparing actual money spent against future budgets, rather than against other actual spending, which for FY 2017-’18 totaled $324,802 for his office.

Challenger Eugene Solomon. Image via SolomonForTreasurer.com

O’Donnell, in her tentative ruling, agreed, saying that the information appears to be a comparison of different data. O’Donnell also agreed that Solomon’s implication that the City Treasurer obtains contracts was misleading. That power lies with the Redondo Beach City Council.

Spending for the treasurer’s office did increase in FY 2016-’17, rising to $380,052 from the previous year. But the reason for the increase, Diels said, is higher personnel costs. Chief Deputy City Treasurer Nilesh Mehta was hired in 2016 and earned a base pay of $103,607.98 in 2017 according to Transparent California.

The city has had a Deputy City Treasurer in the past. But the position went unfilled in 2015, the same year that the City Council reduced Diels’ salary to $25,000, leading to that year’s savings.

“I’m questioning his financial literacy, but that’s beside the point,” Diels said. “He’s making false statements about me, which he’s not supposed to do in a ballot statement.”

“The reason I used those numbers was because the actuals were not available, and they were the best available numbers,” Solomon said. “Based on that, operating expenses have tripled.”

Diels also alleged that Solomon misrepresented himself in his ballot designation — typically, a title stating the candidate’s occupation or their elected office — by calling himself a “Finance Commissioner/Businessman.”

Solomon operates the Eugene J. Solomon Insurance Agency in El Segundo, and he is a Budget and Finance Commissioner, appointed by Redondo’s Mayor and City Council.

The State election code states that designations must be three words long, and express a candidate’s principal profession or elected office.

“In his case, it’s that he’s a ‘finance commissioner.’ There’s no such title in Redondo Beach, and he doesn’t get paid,” Diels said.

In past elections, candidates such as Christian Horvath, Candace Nafissi and Michael Jackson have used their commission status in their designation without issue. It appears that practice will stop this year, as both Nafissi and Solomon have been asked by City Clerk Eleanor Manzano to change their designations to comply with state law.

After initially representing himself in the suit, Diels hired election law attorney Bradley Hertz.

Hertz is locally known for representing residents Arnette Travis and Chris Voisey in a losing campaign finance lawsuit against Mayor Bill Brand, Councilman Nils Nehrenheim and activist organization Rescue Our Waterfront.

Solomon was not immediately available for comment after the decision.

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