The City of Irvine is refusing to release public records on Councilman Mike Carroll’s questionable use of city mailers until two days before next month’s election, prompting questions about how over $70,000 in taxpayer money was authorized and spent.
Voice of OC first reported on the mailers last month, when Councilwoman Melissa Fox filed a complaint with the state’s lead campaign finance watchdog over city mailers that were being sent out under Councilman Carroll’s name that none of the council had been informed about.
The mailers were not direct advertisements for Carroll’s 2020 campaign, but prominently featured the councilman’s name and information for a series of town halls discussing the city’s response to the pandemic and the election.
The use of official resources by incumbents to boost city spending on mailers that feature their name prominently has been a rising technique used by a number of local politicians in recent years. A few years back, local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle got state legislators to approve legislation limiting such activities at the county level.
Questionable campaign spending at the city level is largely regulated by City Attorney Jeff Melching and local District Attorney Todd Spitzer. Neither has taken any kind of public action in this case.
Carroll has defended his actions by stating that the funds for the mailers came out of his staff budget, but according to city rules that money has to be used for staff salaries unless approved for another use by the entire council by an official vote.
Carroll has not returned multiple requests for comment from Voice of OC over the past month asking him to discuss the mailers, emailing reporters a written statement last month that the FPPC complaint was a, “political hatchet job,” and took aim at Fox’s spending on her aides.
Voice of OC submitted a request for the financial records of Carroll’s mailers and any communication between city staff discussing them on Sept. 15, after confirming that his spending was not approved by the city council.
Two weeks ago, city staff responded to that request, stating the records would be released by Nov. 1st. This does not include the records that the city chooses to withhold, which would have to be appealed or challenged in court.
City staff have said they hope to send the first batch of records “well before,” Nov. 1st, but did not specify a date.
City staff previously released copies of the budgets for all council members staff to Voice of OC, but the information released did not reflect the current year’s numbers, showing no sign of Carroll’s expenditures.
The records also made no mention of close to $40,000 Carroll spent on mailers last fiscal year, only pointing to just under $30,000 that was paid to his part time staff.
Carroll has not sent out any new mailers since Voice of OC reported on the expenditures, but he has hosted at least two rounds of automated phone calls to Irvine residents, advertising events led by him on how to fill out a mail in ballot and submit it.
It’s unclear how those robocalls were paid for.
City staff did not return requests for comment on whether the city’s facilities were used to host the call, but multiple residents have reported on social media that when they reached out to the city to ask about the event they were told it was not a city event.
In the month since the mailers became public knowledge, the city council has remained entirely mute in their meetings on the subject, with the only mention of the incident coming from a commenter at the council’s meeting last Tuesday night.
“What is council doing regarding Mike Carroll & his theft of $72,000 of city funds to finance his campaign?” wrote commenter John Smith. “It is the responsibility of council to safeguard city funds from this council member.”
Rather than respond to the comments on Carroll, the council spent the rest of the meeting discussing the arrest of two men who’d been caught by the Irvine Police Department, throwing away signs for several Republican city council candidates including mayor Christina Shea and Carroll.
Off the dais, Shea said she asked for a review of the city’s budget to discuss the issue last month, but was told that the council’s Oct. 27 meeting was the soonest city staff could present to the public, one week before an election with record returns for early voting.
Fox, the one who originally reported the spending, said that she would drop the issue after the Fair Political Practices Commission reported they would not investigate further, and that she’d done her duty by reporting it.
This will be Carroll’s first run for city council after he was appointed in 2019 to fill the vacancy created by Don Wagner’s run for county supervisor.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.