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Rules for Nonprofit Groups : Panel Acts to Bar Politics in Space Rented From City

Times Staff Writer

A San Diego City Council committee Wednesday broadened rules against political activity by nonprofit organizations that rent subsidized, city-owned office and meeting space.

In a 4-1 vote, the council’s Public Facilities and Recreation Committee expanded its rules prohibiting campaign activity to include ballot propositions, issues and initiatives. Under the city’s 10-year-old existing policy, the groups are prohibited from working for or against political candidates.

The new regulations, which require a vote of the full San Diego City Council to take effect, do not forbid organization members from lobbying elected officials in pursuit of the group’s goals. Nor would they bar political work that takes place outside city-subsidized office space.

Councilwoman Judy McCarty, a staunch supporter of the rule change, said the new language is intended to ensure that taxpayers’ money does not indirectly support partisan political activity.

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“We’re saying you can’t go out and politicize and campaign on subsidized public property,” McCarty said.

But Councilman Bob Filner, the lone dissenter in Wednesday’s decision, said that the rules instruct groups that “they are not supposed to take positions on the major issues facing this city and this state. I think that’s ridiculous that we are put into that position and that posture.”

Free Speech Issue

In January, the city attorney’s office ruled that the regulations are legal, but an attorney representing the Sierra Club said Wednesday that the expanded rules are unconstitutional because the “city-owned buildings in question are a public forum” where free speech is protected by the First Amendment.

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The rules “diminish, albeit in small measure, one of the fundamental civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution,” said the attorney, Virginia Lauderdale.

The vote ended eight months of committee debate, which began when the San Diego Business Journal accused the local Sierra Club chapter of meeting in subsidized, city-owned office space in Balboa Park to review an endorsement made by the organization’s political arm.

The policy would no longer apply to the Sierra Club because the chapter last month moved to privately owned quarters in North Park. Other groups that occupy city-subsidized space and have taken positions on past ballot initiatives include Citizens Coordinate for Century III and some of the cultural institutions in Balboa Park’s core.

About 1,200 nonprofit groups now pay less than fair-market rates to use city-owned office space, most of them for social or community meetings, said Don Barone, the city’s property management services supervisor.


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