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Candidate’s Criticism Takes On Personal Tone

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An allegation of mudslinging and a call for a clean campaign brought a testy timbre to the Conejo Valley School Board race Friday.

The debate over campaign ethics involved aspiring trustees, chief among them Paul F. Finman and Chuck E. Rittenburg, vying to unseat incumbents Dolores Didio) and Dorothy Beaubien.

The crux is this: On his sample ballot candidate statement--already posted on the Internet and about to land in 70,365 Conejo Valley mailboxes--electrical engineer Finman took aim at the school district, the incumbents and Supt. Jerry Gross. In part, his statement reads, “A parent described Dr. Gross to me as a stereotypical soulless bureaucrat.”

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In a faxed letter, Gross said his record speaks for itself. “I will not dignify Mr. Finman’s scurrilous statements with any further public comment,” he said in a half-page statement.

Dismayed about his opponent’s statement, Rittenburg said he will not participate in the informational school board candidate home page Finman is crafting. He also asked that Finman publicly apologize to Gross and the two trustees, and called for a nicer race.

“Hardball politics turn off voters,” Rittenburg said. “I’d like to set a higher tone for the campaign. I’d sure like to see us avoid the kind of campaign this could lead to, with mudslinging and personal attacks.”

Beyond personal attacks, Beaubien said that the candidate statement was an inappropriate place to criticize people by name, Gross in particular.

“I am very angry, not so much for myself. I am more angry at the vicious, malicious things said about Dr. Gross,” she said, complimenting Gross as a remarkable leader. “If Finman wants to involve Mrs. Didio and myself, we’re running. But Dr. Gross is the CEO of the district. He shouldn’t even be involved.”

Finman, however, said his bluntly worded candidate statement, which also calls for responsiveness to parents and a redoubled emphasis on technology, is within the bounds of fair political play.

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“I will be making strong, honest statements in this campaign, which I hope will stimulate positive debate on the direction of the Conejo district,” he said. “I do not want to hold back on any honest statements, even though some may say the honesty is too severe.”

At the very least, Finman’s candidate statement violates good taste, Rittenburg said; it may further infringe upon the California Code of Fair Campaign Practices. The code--a multi-page contract calling for decency, honesty and fair play in campaigns--is given to every candidate who pulls papers for office.

According to Ventura County elections chief Bruce Bradley, the fair campaign code is voluntary and nonbinding. A candidate can opt to sign or skip signing a copy of the code without penalty.

Finman said he chose not to sign, fearing that adherence to the code could dilute his message. Even if Finman had signed the code, it is merely “a good faith” document without teeth, Bradley said.

In fact, nothing in the California Election Code, which includes the campaign practices code, governs what can be said in candidate statements, except those filed by judges.

“Every election, we have situations where candidates say some obnoxious things about their opponents, but people don’t remember that,” Bradley said. “It leads you to think no one reads” the sample ballot.

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Candidate statements can be contested by others through the legal system during a 10-day public examination period that ended Aug. 19. Sample ballots, which will be mailed in three weeks, cannot be changed now because they are already at the printer’s, Bradley said.

Aside from the ballot box, other modes of recourse are few, he said. People who believe they have been wronged in a candidate statement can ignore the slight or call a lawyer. Finman’s statements “have been referred to our legal counsel,” Gross said in his statement.

Said Beaubien: “I just wish there were something to do that would take the [candidate] statement back.”

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