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2 Costa Mesa council candidates accused of improperly using pictures of uniformed city employees in campaign materials

2 Costa Mesa council candidates accused of improperly using pictures of uniformed city employees in campaign materials
Costa Mesa City Council candidate Manuel Chavez and Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Katrina Foley received letters from the city-retained law firm Best Best & Krieger alleging they had improperly depicted uniformed city employees in political materials. (Courtesy Photos)

A law firm representing the city of Costa Mesa recently sent letters to City Council candidates Manuel Chavez and Katrina Foley alleging that they improperly included pictures of uniformed city employees in some campaign materials.

The letters — dated Oct. 8 and signed by attorney Matthew Richardson with the firm Best Best & Krieger — say using such images for political purposes “could be construed as a violation of the city’s impartiality in the upcoming election” and potentially run afoul of a provision of the California Government Code that states “no officer or employee of a local agency shall participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.”

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Additionally, the letter to Chavez claims some of his photographs included unauthorized depictions of Costa Mesa’s city seal.

The Daily Pilot received the letters Tuesday from a resident who obtained them through a public records request. As of Wednesday, they were the only two of that kind sent to council candidates, according to the Costa Mesa city clerk’s office.

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Photos in a campaign flier for Costa Mesa City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Katrina Foley show her alongside uniformed city public safety personnel.
Photos in a campaign flier for Costa Mesa City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Katrina Foley show her alongside uniformed city public safety personnel. (Best Best & Krieger)

The letter to Foley — a current councilwoman who is facing off against Mayor Sandy Genis in the race to become the city’s first directly elected mayor — points to a campaign flier that includes pictures of her alongside uniformed city public safety personnel.

“Such photos are against the best interest of the depicted employees, who — through your campaign materials — are unintentionally violating” the Government Code, the letter states.

Foley, however, said “it’s disappointing that our city attorney’s office is participating in the smear campaign against me, abusing the legal process and intimidating our employees from participating in the election.”

She noted that both the Costa Mesa police and firefighters associations have endorsed her campaign.

“It’s not a violation for a candidate to include a photo taken at a public event in the past so long as uniform badges and patches are not displayed,” Foley said in a statement Wednesday. “I complied with the rules by blurring the images. To pursue this against the employees is just a form of intimidation. To use the legal process against me knowing it’s not a violation is an improper covert attempt to influence the outcome of the election.”

This since-deleted Facebook post shows Costa Mesa City Council candidate Manuel Chavez, second from left, with Fire Chief Dan Stefano, left, and the seal of the Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newest city fire station in September.
This since-deleted Facebook post shows Costa Mesa City Council candidate Manuel Chavez, second from left, with Fire Chief Dan Stefano, left, and the seal of the Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newest city fire station in September. (Best Best & Krieger)

The letter to Chavez — one of three candidates to represent council District 4, which covers a dense pocket of the Westside south of the Fairview Developmental Center — regards photos that were taken at the Sept. 29 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newest city fire station on Adams Avenue and later posted to his campaign Facebook page.

The pictures show Chavez alongside Fire Chief Dan Stefano, as well as a decorative depiction of the Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department logo, which includes the city seal in its center.

Chavez said Wednesday that he removed the photos once he became aware of the potential issues.

“We just want to make sure there are no issues like that at all with Manuel and the firefighters supporting him,”said his campaign manager, Cassius Rutherford.

According to the city clerk’s office, the letters were forwarded to the Police Department for follow-up.

Police spokeswoman Roxi Fyad said that “consistent with our past practice, we send all election-related incidents … to the DA’s office.”

The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Such matters are not new in Costa Mesa.

During the 2016 City Council race, Costa Mesa officials denounced an image posted on Facebook that included a photo of then-Mayor Steve Mensinger posing with Stefano and Police Chief Rob Sharpnack. According to a city statement at the time, the photo was “falsely implying that the city’s police and fire chiefs have endorsed any candidates.”

A similar issue regarding the city seal popped up in 2016, when the Fire & Rescue Department logo appeared on a campaign flier for then-council candidate Jay Humphrey. Though unauthorized use of the seal can be considered a misdemeanor, the Orange County district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against Humphrey.

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