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With the election less than a month away, the three candidates for San Francisco district attorney are ramping up their efforts to get their names out — and to paint their opponents in an unflattering light. The candidates — Terence Hallinan, Kamala Harris and Bill Fazio — sparred in front of voters over domestic violence prosecution, police misconduct and their qualifications at a forum Tuesday night. Later in the evening, the lawyers for incumbent DA Hallinan and challenger Harris continued a tug-of-war over spending limits before the city’s Ethics Commission and a superior court judge. Ethics commissioners Tuesday night reconsidered a September decision made by the commission’s staff to lift the voluntary spending caps in the general and runoff elections for the DA race. Hallinan, who waited for the outcome at City Hall until after midnight, was disappointed with the commission’s 3-2 decision to just reimpose a $121,000 cap on the runoff election, if a runoff is needed. “Ethics [commissioners] didn’t do their job,” the DA said after the vote. Benjamin Rosenfeld and Dennis Cunningham from the Law Office of Dennis Cunningham in San Francisco tried Wednesday to persuade Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay to order the commission to reinstate the spending limits immediately. They are representing Hallinan and Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, a mayoral candidate. In the other corner, attorneys for the Ethics Commission and Harris urged the judge to reject Hallinan’s petition for an alternative writ of mandate. James Sutton of San Francisco’s Sutton & Partners and Debra Cauble, a lawyer from the Santa Clara county counsel’s office representing the Ethics Commission, argued the court can only overturn the commission’s decision if it was arbitrary or capricious. Instead, they said, it was deliberative. The Santa Clara county counsel has taken on the case because San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has recused his office. Quidachay grilled both sides, asked them each to submit proposed orders to the court and said he’ll try to decide by Friday whether to reject Hallinan’s petition or hold another hearing next week. The city’s campaign finance law lifts voluntary spending caps if one candidate declines to accept them and then raises or spends more than the limit. In January, Harris signed a pledge to abide by the spending limits. But she contends she had the right to reject them after the Board of Supervisors amended the campaign finance law in July. She agreed Oct. 3 to $34,000 in penalties because she filed some forms late. Hallinan argues that regardless of the amendments, Harris should be bound to her January pledge and has violated the law by spending at least $91,000 more than the cap. Cunningham argued that the decision to lift the limits Sept. 26 is “irreparably harmful” to Hallinan’s campaign, contending that it allows Harris to send out a deluge of literature. “The commission has effectively granted them the right to spend without limit.” If the court were to reimpose the limits now, Sutton countered, Harris wouldn’t be able to spend money on ads telling voters she had not accepted the spending caps, nor would she be able to pay her fine. “Third, she would not be able to pay for legal representation, frankly,” Sutton said. That prompted a couple of chuckles in the courtroom before he added that, most importantly, Harris wouldn’t be able to communicate with voters. Higher penalties could conceivably be revisited, Quidachay told the DA’s attorneys, but, “How do you ungong the bell regarding, at least, the limits?” And when Sutton mentioned that a regulation on the Ethics Commission Web site added to the Harris campaign’s confusion over the amended law, Quidachay said, “Is it OK to rely on Web sites?” Quidachay and Cunningham agreed that the issue of whether the spending limit should be reinstated could become moot if Fazio spends past the cap. Fazio declined to accept spending limits in the race. Duane Baughman, Fazio’s campaign consultant, said Wednesday that he hadn’t raised or spent more than $211,000, but added, “Tomorrow might be a different thing.” Sutton took aim at Commissioner Paul Melbostad, saying that the participation of the attorney who was appointed to the commission by Hallinan rises to “a scandal of citywide proportions.” “This guy is not only not recusing himself. He’s playing an active role,” Sutton said, adding that Melbostad talked to Hallinan’s lawyer during the court proceeding. Melbostad dismissed the notion that he should recuse himself. He can’t be favored with another appointment because of term limits and isn’t involved with Hallinan’s campaign, he said. The appearance in Quidachay’s courtroom came about 10 hours after the Ethics Commission struggled with a similar question. While Melbostad urged immediate reinstatement of the limits, Commissioner Michael Garcia said he thought the limits weren’t properly lifted, but it was too impractical to reimpose them immediately. Two memos written by members of the commission’s staff and circulated Tuesday revealed further details behind the decision to lift the caps and a dissenting opinion from at least one employee. The staff found conflicting evidence as to whether Harris accepted or rejected the spending limit, says a memo from Executive Director Ginny Vida and Deputy Executive Director Mabel Ng. The memo cites a need to balance the rights of a candidate to political expression versus a public interest in controlling candidate spending. It says, “Staff interpreted the ambiguity � in a manner that is most protective of First Amendment rights.” But in another memo, Campaign Finance Officer Joe Lynn said he didn’t think Harris’ statement declining the spending cap should have been accepted at all because it wasn’t filed by the Aug. 8 deadline, and the law says a candidate can’t withdraw an accepting statement once he or she has filed it. As the spending cap controversy continues, the candidates are keeping busy schedules on the campaign trail. At a forum Tuesday hosted by the League of Women Voters of San Francisco, Harris promised that, if elected, she would not allow prosecutors to drop any domestic violence case that has been charged and would immediately put one assistant DA in charge of training police on legal requirements. Fazio said the DA has to work better with the police department and respect victims so that they feel comfortable testifying. Hallinan took credit for diversifying the DA’s staff and for supporting the principles behind Proposition H — which seeks to reform the structure of the police commission — even before it became a ballot measure.

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