Robocall flap highlights passions over Santa Rosa’s rent control referendum

The political campaign committee advocating for Santa Rosa’s rent control law conducted a robocall this month urging voters to participate in a “telephone town hall” with Councilwoman Julie Combs about the June 6 referendum vote.

Now some rent control opponents, including several political veterans in the city, say the action didn’t appear to comply with the local rules governing campaign robocalls — rules that Combs, a strong rent control supporter, was instrumental in getting passed in 2014.

Combs and officials with the pro-rent control committee, Fair and Affordable Housing — Yes on C, say they didn’t need to follow the city’s robocall ordinance, which requires the callers to disclose who paid for them and give people a way to opt out of future calls.

The calls were outside the bounds of the robocall ordinance and complied with city rules because they were factual, not advocacy, Combs and her allies said. A city attorney has echoed that finding based on her review of the robocall script.

“This was informational,” Combs said. “It wasn’t intended to influence people to vote a certain way.”

But former Mayor Scott Bartley, who received two voicemail messages at home, said he was surprised to get the calls because Combs has always been stridently opposed to robocalls.

“I just chuckled because of the hypocrisy,” said Bartley, who opposes the city’s rent control law, passed after he left the council. “She’s saying ‘I’m totally against robocalls until it’s something that I’m for, then I’m happy to do it.’ ”

The squabble underscores just how divisive the record-breaking fight over the city’s rent control ordinance is becoming. The competing Measure C campaigns are on track to shatter all campaign spending records, with more than $939,000 in total reported donations earlier this month. Opponents backed by real estate interests enjoy a nearly 7-to-1 fundraising edge over supporters of the city’s rent control law.

In addition to the robocall flap, the campaigns have complained that each others’ signs contain technical violations of rules governing the visibility of statements indicating who paid for them.

The Yes on C campaign paid for the calls as a way to get people to participate in a “telephone town hall” on May 10. Combs’ voice can be heard on a recording telling people that “this is an important election to help address our local housing crisis” and urging people to participate in the call.

“The call does not state a position. It’s just an invitation,” Combs said.

The hourlong call was a question-and-answer format during which Combs fielded questions from callers about the controversial measure. She said she tried hard to present the city’s position factually, but also acknowledged that, when asked, she expressed her support for rent control and just-cause eviction rules.

Combs said she ran the script of the robocall by City Clerk Daisy Gomez, who agreed it seemed nonpartisan, and therefore was not required to comply with robocall regulations.

Gomez confirmed that the text she reviewed seemed not to be advocating anything.

“It looked like it was fine, as long as it wasn’t a call to support or oppose the measure,” Gomez said.

But Herb Williams, a veteran Santa Rosa political consultant, calls Combs’ explanation a “flimsy excuse” to get around the very ordinance she claimed was needed to increase transparency in local political campaigns.