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Last Friday was a special day at Garden Grove’s Great Wolf Lodge — nearly 2,000 residents were given free access to the massive indoor resort and water park, which normally charges hundreds of dollars for a night’s stay and access to its waterslides.

The event was the brainchild of Garden Grove Councilman Steve Jones.

“I’ve had an idea in the back of my head…that I would like to talk them into opening up the water park to Garden Grove residents […] to showcase this amazing new addition to our city and encourage them to establish a spirit of community involvement,” Jones said

All the aquatic fun and community spirit also amounted to a massive contribution from Great Wolf to Jones’ campaign for mayor.

Garden Grove Councilman Steve Jones (left) with Chad McWhinney (right), CEO of the development company that owns the Great Wolf resort.
Garden Grove Councilman Steve Jones (left) with Chad McWhinney (right), CEO McWhinney, the development company that owns the Great Wolf Lodge resort.

Earlier in the evening Great Wolf hosted a campaign fundraiser for Jones, who is running unopposed, and then opened the water park after regular business hours to residents, who registered for the event through his campaign website.

The resort, which opened earlier this year, has been a controversial addition to Garden Grove, drawing praise from city leaders who say it will be a crucial economic engine; and criticism from those who question whether the development – which received $70 million in city subsidies – will benefit the residents who helped pay for it.

Jones has been a big supporter of the project, and, like most of his fellow council members, has been the beneficiary of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the company over the past decade. And unlike the county and cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim, Garden Grove does not impose campaign contribution limits.

Determining the value of Great Wolf’s free night is difficult because the water park is normally only available to those who pay to stay at the resort, where rooms currently range between $280 and $580 a night, according to the resort’s website.

The hotel was almost entirely booked on the night of the event, said Jones.

“The tricky part is the valuation – this is not a water park that is usually open to the public, so you’d have to figure out the fair market value of one ticket,” said Philip Ung, a spokesman for the state ethics watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission.

At least one resident, Paul Marsden, is concerned about the size of the contribution to Jones’ campaign. Marsden says he has filed a complaint to the FPPC about the campaign event.

“By funneling ticket requests through his own personal website, Councilman Jones has virtually admitted to accepting an enormous gift from a Garden Grove business that he helped to get built,” said Marsden, who ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2014. “This gift could easily be valued at tens of thousands of dollars.”

But aside from missing a 24-hour filing deadline for candidates to file contributions above $1,000, it’s unclear whether Jones’ event runs afoul of the law.

Although state election code prohibits gift-giving to garner votes for or against a candidate, it’s common – and legal – for political campaigns to give voters freebies, as long as it doesn’t come with a promise or inducement of a vote.

There’s no monetary limit to how much campaigns can spend on voters, according to the FPPC.

Most campaigns typically give out items like pens, buttons, potholders or oven mitts, although some candidates have crossed into questionable territory.

In 2014, gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari caused controversy by giving out $25 gas cards to the first 100 people who showed up to a campaign event. It led some election attorneys to question whether the gas-card giveaway amounted to inducing a vote.

Jones, meanwhile, said he intended to report the event as an in-kind contribution but is waiting for a final tally for the cost of the event.

“At this time, I am still waiting for the event sponsor to provide a breakdown of the total costs involved and then I plan to make the appropriate campaign report filing immediately thereafter,” said Jones in an email.

Jones said he feels “blessed and grateful to be running unopposed” and will focus on facilitating “a shared vision amongst all City Councilmembers…[and] a smooth transition into the new district election system.”

Although he has no challengers, Jones still needs a majority of votes cast in order to become mayor, according to the city clerk’s office.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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