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Voters need to be investigative reporters these days

Local government is literally what happens outside your front door, which is why every City Council election should be taken seriously.

Being your own investigative reporter is key to becoming an educated voter. Knowing who is behind and against candidates and issues is as important as understanding candidates' positions.

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I'll take you through a few simple steps I took this week as my mail-in ballot sat on my desk.

Wanting to know more about ballot measures and candidates, I turned to the pamphlet put out by the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

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Most probably don't take the time to even flip through this. I read it in less than 20 minutes.

The arguments for and against each ballot measure, and the candidate statements, was interesting and, in some cases, eye-opening.

For example, looking at the District 2 Newport Beach council race between candidates Brad Avery and Shelley Henderson, I noticed Avery submitted a candidate statement and Henderson didn't. In my book that's an indication of a poorly organized campaign effort by Henderson, since the county gives candidates plenty of time to submit a statement.

Taking it one step further, I always look at a candidate's online presence, and in this case Henderson's was telling. Looking at her Facebook and campaign website, shelleymhenderson.com, nowhere on either did I see anything tying her to Newport or issues facing this city, leading me to question why she's even running in my town.

I also took time to delve into the cities of Newport and Costa Mesa website pages dealing with campaign-disclosure statements.

Following the money was revealing and raised even more questions for me. When looking at these pages it's important to pay special attention not only to candidate disclosure statements, but independent expenditures (IEs) and political action committees (PACs), which have all sorts of snappy names, some that are misleading.

And following the origin from where the dollars generate, in some cases is easier said than done.

Like Costa Mesa Residents against the Power Grab/No on Measure Y. Measure Y is a slow-growth initiative, which has seen much controversy, and, if passed, would require voter approval on certain development projects.

Among the supporters of this PAC is the Orange County Jobs Coalition, with a Los Angeles address, donating $30,000 to the effort to sink Y.

But who are these folks?

No individual donor names are listed, and why would an L.A.-based group be so interested?

PACs and IEs can raise unlimited amounts of money, making them powerful players in elections, since candidates have individual donor contributions limits.

Turning my attention to PACs on Newport's site, the Howard P. Ahmanson/Fieldstead & Co. PAC was an interesting one. It has $10,877 in its coffers to make sure candidate Phil Greer doesn't get elected.

And they're spending more than $15,000 to oppose Jeff Herdman.

Ahmanson's PAC spent about $70,000 in the 2014 election to put Team Newport in place.

And then there's the Southern California Coalition of Business and Tax Payers, which touts an Ontario address. Only one donor listed so far on its Sept. 12 statement: candidate Lee Lowery's campaign fund for $1,000.

Yes, campaigns can donate to these PACs, IEs and other candidates as well, making this process all a bit incestuous for my taste.

The Peninsula Small Business PAC lists Lysa Ray as treasurer. Ray's name may ring a bell because she serves as treasurer for candidates Avery, Lowery and Will O'Neill, as well as council members Scott Peotter, Kevin Muldoon, Marshall Duffield and Mayor Diane Dixon.

In addition to Ray, the other common denominator here is all these folks are clients of political consultant Dave Ellis, who ran the Team Newport campaigns.

PACs and IEs are supposed to act independently of candidates. Legally, they're prohibited from conferring with candidates, or anyone in the candidate's organization for that matter, when creating mailers in support or against a candidate or ballot measure.

Outside influences are strongly in play locally this election, looking at the PACs and IEs popping up in recent weeks. Expect lots of nasty mailers generating from them soon.

And there are layers of mystery money that will surely try to impact these council races as well, as some PACs and IEs not listed with the cities, but rather with the county and state, start pouring in dough.

What makes these council seats so valuable to these outsiders?

What vested interest do entities backing these committees have in seeing certain candidates elected?

Is this about moving a certain ideology forward?

Or is it about high-density development in both cities, which could be worth millions to certain interests?

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BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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