Politics & Government

SLO City Council member hit with complaint by rival

John Ashbaugh
John Ashbaugh The Tribune

A San Luis Obispo City Council candidate has filed a complaint with the city alleging that incumbent John Ashbaugh, seeking re-election, is misusing city resources for personal gain. Ashbaugh acknowledged the violations Tuesday, saying they were not intentional. 

Candidate Kevin P. Rice filed the complaint Monday with the City Clerk’s Office outlining several apparent violations by Ashbaugh of state and city election codes by: using his city-issued email address to campaign, filing a financial disclosure late and exceeding campaign contribution limits.

The 14 emails were found after city staff conducted an extensive search of more than 5,000 emails at Rice’s request. 

Rice filed a public records request in September asking the city to have the three incumbents disclose any emails sent from their email accounts that might have violated the policy, knowing that Ashbaugh had violated it because someone had given him a copy of a prior email exchange. 

Ashbaugh did not disclose any emails, prompting Rice’s request for a further search by city staff. 

“I did a fair number of searches using various search terms,” Ashbaugh said. “I made an honest effort and put enough time in that I felt I had satisfied the request. I was obviously negligent.”

City Council candidate Matthew Strzepek and mayoral hopefuls Steve Barasch and Donald Hedrick have also signed the complaint. 

The emails listed in the complaint vary from Ashbaugh confirming a donation to inquiring why his campaign website was malfunctioning. 

In one email, a resident had written to commend Ashbaugh for his environmental advocacy.

He responded with, “Thanks, Valerie! I just filed for re-election, so please expect to be hearing from me again soon.”

California law prohibits the use of public resources for campaigning. 

Incumbents also running for re-election, Mayor Jan Marx and Councilman Dan Carpenter, both made it clear in various emails that people should send campaign correspondence to their personal email accounts or forwarded those emails to their personal accounts to respond. 

“I am perfectly willing to take responsibility,” Ashbaugh said. “I screwed up just like I did when I left my garbage cans in view.”

Ashbaugh was referring to an instance when he failed to follow a city ordinance he helped pass requiring residents to shield their trash cans from public view. 

Ashbaugh said he did file a financial disclosure three days late but said at the time there was confusion about the filing date. 

The allegation of exceeding campaign contribution limits refers to an email exchange between Ashbaugh and county Supervisor Adam Hill.

In that email exchange, Hill affirmed a $200 donation — the donation cap set by city election regulations — but also said he would be bringing wine to a fundraiser.

Ashbaugh said he has since mailed a $30 check to Hill to reimburse him for the wine after it became clear it was a violation.

Rice has asked the city attorney to pursue civil action against Ashbaugh and levy fines for each offense. 

The City Attorney’s Office is reviewing the complaint and will decide by Nov. 1 whether it will file a civil action. 

Rice said the complaint is not a political vendetta but necessary. 

“It’s probably hurting my relationship with John, who has been great to me,” Rice said. 

“But you gotta follow the rules. It drives me nuts. The little things always get blown off, and in the end it adds up.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.