MEASURE A – Anonymous campaign triggers Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) investigation
by Mark McDermott
A barrage of anonymously funded campaign flyers, signs, and advertisements against Measure A has resulted in an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, following complaints filed by two Manhattan Beach residents.
Measure A, a citizen-led initiative that proposes a $1,095 annual parcel tax to help fund Manhattan Beach public schools, appears on the June 7 ballot. Though no officially organized opposition has emerged, a network of anonymous groups, and a few local leaders, including Councilperson Joe Franklin, have campaigned against Measure A. The allegations being investigated by the FPPC include a lack of financial disclosure by the anonymous groups, and by Franklin.
FPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga said the agency, charged with protecting the integrity of elections, does not comment on specific investigations, but confirmed that anonymous campaigns that do not disclose their funding are generally in violation of California’s Political Reform Act.
“What I can say is, generally speaking, one of the main goals of the Political Reform Act is disclosure,” Wierenga said. “In a general sense, campaigns have to report who they are, who is behind it, who is contributing, and how they are spending campaign funds. Political advertising must show proper disclosure.”
The FPPC’s jurisdiction includes campaign finance and lobbying reporting, political advertisement disclosure, and conflicts of interest for public officials. Wierenga said disclosure requirements are sometimes not required for certain types of political committees, but that generally speaking political ads require disclosure. “That is, who is paying for the ad,” he said.
At issue are a few hundred “No on A” signs that have appeared throughout Manhattan Beach, several flyers delivered both by hand and via direct mail, email newsletters organizing the campaign, and soliciting involvement, and advertisements appearing in the Beach Reporter. None of the materials include a campaign committee name or identifying FPPC number, as required by law for most such materials, and campaigns spending more than $1,000. Most of the materials are anonymously sourced.
Michael Sinclair, who authored Measure A and is part of the group campaigning on its behalf, MB Citizens for Schools, filed one of the complaints with the FPCC. Sinclair, an attorney, believes the anonymous campaigns are in clear violation of the law.
“People deserve to know who’s feeding them information, and I think that’s really what these particular laws focus on, disclosure and accountability — not allowing anonymous voices to pump out information, and in a lot of cases, misinformation,” he said. “These laws are in place to promote transparency. People deserve that. Our campaign committee has been following all the rules, and we expect others who want to participate in the process to follow.”
Most of the signs include, in smaller print, “Sponsored by WeTheParentsMB@gmail.com,” which is the name of an anonymous group that has alleged, via email newsletters and at least one flyer, that Critical Race Theory is being taught in Manhattan Beach Unified School District classrooms. Email newsletters both from WeTheParentsMB and another anonymous group, MB Strong, asked recipients to email back to obtain a sign.
Sinclair said the fairness of not only this election, but future elections in Manhattan Beach is at stake, particularly school board elections this fall that will determine the board majority.
“It’s important,” Sinclair said. “It is about fair elections, a valid, fair flow of information. It is also about setting a really bad precedent in our community for future elections, as well, in terms of allowing anonymous voices to be either pro or against, whether it’s a campaign for an elected official or for a ballot measure. I think we can all agree that it is in our collective best interest to protect against that as a community.”
Anonymous groups have been increasingly active in Manhattan Beach over the last two years, beginning with one formed in reaction to the City of Manhattan Beach’s attempts to address its own role in the racist history of Bruce’s Beach, which came to light during the emergence of Black Lives Matter movement. That anonymous group, called GetTheFactsOnBrucesBeach, proved influential in the council’s discussions, with Franklin particularly voicing some of its concerns. When social justice, diversity and equity concerns likewise surfaced in school districts across the nation, including Manhattan Beach Unified School District, anonymous groups formed nationwide and locally. Those groups found an ally in Councilperson Suzanne Hadley, who appeared in December and January at the school board to protest Mira Costa library’s website referencing American Library Association awards lists, which included two books, Gender Queer and Lawnboy, which she alleged were without educational merit, but were instead propaganda, presumably for equity, diversity, and social justice activists attempting to sway education.
Sinclair said at a May 11 forum at the Joslyn Center, at which Franklin represented No on A, the councilperson arrived at the dais with Gender Queer and another book frequently under attack, Slay. Additionally, WeTheParentsMB lawn signs opposing Measure A, and other materials, were available at a table at the back of the room in which the forum occurred.
“I am surprised that Joe Franklin has chosen to utilize his position to enable and legitimize these anonymous groups who are putting out false information,” Sinclair said. “He’s proudly displaying their sign in his front yard, putting his name on their flyers and representing them in public forums. It’s not what I would expect from an elected official.”
Franklin said that he has no involvement with any of the anonymous groups.
“My support has been with fellow residents, not groups, opposing this measure,” he said.
But Franklin also argued it is well within the rights of anyone who wishes to be involved anonymously to do so.
“If a resident wants to make copies of their thoughts and distribute them around town, it is within their legal right to do so, and to do so in any manner they choose,” he said. “This is many ‘Davids’ fighting a well-funded ‘Goliath’…My sense is folks want to be confidential about giving out their names in today’s very real cancel culture. And the law allows that. And how we vote is also private.”
Franklin acknowledged he brought the books in question to the forum but questioned why that mattered, noting that his discussion hewed to fiscal matters that evening.
“If Mr. Sinclair believes that carrying a particular book automatically makes me a member of a particular group, I worry for our rights as a democracy,” Franklin said.
Among Franklin’s actions that have come under scrutiny are his appearance at the Joslyn Center. A City ordinance addressing campaign and political activities says that elected officials cannot represent themselves as representing the City while campaigning, nor engage in political activity in City-owned facilities. But part of the ordinance also indicates that rooms commonly used for such activities are exempted. Arguably, the Josyln Center could meet this exemption. City Attorney Quinn Barrow has been forwarded the matter but not issued an opinion, at least not publicly.
“I’ve been to Joslyn three times in the past two weeks,” Franklin said. “Older adults often stop me to ask questions, like the senior exemption. I am not sure if that is not allowed.”
Franklin also made phone calls and left messages — his critics call them robocalls, though he disagrees with that description — in which he argues against Measure A but does not identify who paid for the call.
“To me, it’s astonishing what he is doing, utilizing his position to give legitimacy to these anonymous groups who are just putting out absolutely outrageous information,” Sinclair said.
Franklin said those are actual phone calls.
“I’m not making robocalls,” he said. “I make individual calls and leave voice mail messages if no one answers. My phone number is displayed and I say, ‘Feel free to call me back.’ If someone answers, I speak with them.”
According to the FPPC, advertisements requiring disclosure include “mass mailings (including e-mail blasts), paid telephone calls, radio and television ads, billboards, yard signs, and electronic media ads.”
Former councilperson Amy Howorth, who co-founded the group MB United, in part to combat the rise of anonymous and what she believes are intentionally divisive groups, has traced many of the methods being employed to national playbooks issued by anti-CRT groups such as Parents Defending Schools, which specifically offer how-to guides on setting up anonymous emails and Instagram accounts and countering “woke” language. Howorth sad
“They all share the same playbook and toolkit, and they have a process in which the first step is to create an anonymous email group,” Howorth said. “And it’s very easy to do in Gmail. This is a national thing, and they have brought this into our town…It has made civic discourse not just coarse but anonymous, where there’s no accountability, and you can say anything you want, and nobody can refute it. So all you’re doing is intentionally misinforming people, intentionally spreading fear for your own political agenda, and not for the good of the community. You’re encouraging politicians not to come to consensus but to stake their positions. Consensus is good. Sometimes you have to give and take. Not every battle needs to be ideological warfare.”
Howorth said that the anonymous and often derisive language and unsourced information used in the emails has found its way into public forums now that the pandemic has receded and public discourse is once again in person.
“I think that this is just so bad for the community, and I think it has led to this environment where we’re name-calling people that we see on the street and even our neighbors,” she said. “We’re creating an environment where you go to a political forum, and it’s hostile. It’s just divisive.”
Franklin said in the Measure A debate, the divisiveness is coming from its proponents, not opponents.
“There seems to be a disproportionate amount of anger, vitriol and name-calling being put forth by Mr. Sinclair, and his group when we are simply asking for answers to our questions,” he said. “Our position is really one of, ‘Is there a better way?’” ER