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Page a Pol: Santa Cruz City Councilmembers need to stay in touch.


Public Trough

No one will ever get rich running for city council in Santa Cruz, but for four lucky winners next month there will be a few perks waiting for them when they take office.

The monthly salary for the supposedly part-time position is only a grand (twice that for the mayor), but members also get a $500 per month "car allowance" in lieu of mileage reimbursements. Council members can choose to receive the same health benefits as other city employees, as well as a $25,000 basic life insurance policy.

They also get a pager, a laptop computer and PalmPilot, which must be returned when they leave office, and can have a cell phone if they choose to pay for it out of their $1,200 per year expense account. According to the city manager's office, the city issued 113 cell phones to all departments last year and paid over $67,000 in equipment and service.

Travel expenses for conferences and training seminars for council members are paid for out of the council operating budget.

But the best perk, from Nüz's point of view, is the little sticker council members get to put on their car bumper that allows them to park in any controlled parking space, such as at meters, for free. The days when a political friend could fix a parking ticket for you may be gone, but in Santa Cruz the city council has at least managed to permanently fix its own tickets.

Another Nüz favorite is the retirement plan. Council members can enroll in PERS (the Public Employees' Retirement System), but they only become vested after five years--meaning they have to win re-election at least once. That may explain why Michael Hernandez, the council's doodling king, decided to give it another go at the ballot box.

The Going Vote Rate

"Your vote is so valuable, that the candidates, their parties and the corporations that support them are spending millions of dollars this year in an attempt to influence your decision," claims www.voteauction.com, a website where Americans can go to sell and buy votes for the upcoming presidential election. "Unfortunately this money is spent on advertising campaigns, pollsters and high-priced consultants. Voteauction.com is cutting out the middleman and bringing the big money of presidential politics directly to you."

Currently more than 10,000 people are registered on Voteauction.com, ready to sell their vote to the highest bidder. Bidders can buy voting blocks by state or, for $129,000, can purchase the whole kit and caboodle. The state with the most registered vote hawkers so far is California, with 1,422. The average price of a single vote settles somewhere around $20.

Buying and selling votes, of course, is illegal under the laws of every state in the nation. So why hasn't Voteauction.com been down?

Federal Election Commission member Brad Smith told Wired magazine that the reluctance to shut the site down stems from the fact that since the site "traffics in a novel form of oversees instigated vote fraud" (the ISP is in Bulgaria and the site is owned by an Austrian investor) no one knows if it falls to the Department of Justice, Department of State, municipal or statewide boards of election, state attorneys general or offices that monitor the Internet to take legal action against the site. And since the site keeps the names of vote sellers and bidders confidential, individuals are also seemingly immune.

"I think it's a joke, myself," says Richard Bedal, clerk/recorder for the Santa Cruz County Election Department. "How do they know who you'll vote for when you go into the booth? That's why we have secret ballots."

Others respond more dramatically. "The perpetrators of the website," says Deborah M. Phillips, chairman and president of the Voting Integrity Project, "and all their cynical participants are engaging in illegal activity which could become tantamount to a bloodless coup."

Representatives of Voteauction.com were seen at the Oct. 3 presidential debates passing out bumper stickers and other promotional paraphernalia.

"We believe that, more than our own outreach efforts, the recent media attention has contributed to the increase in the number of voters registered with Voteauction.com," says Voteauction.com spokeswoman Sandra Bairl, noting that the number of registered vote sellers increased by over 4,000 in 15 days.

The site is the brainchild of American graduate student James Baumgartner, who wanted to comment on corruption in American politics. Before he sold the site, he noted that most vote sellers tended to be twentysomething males with some college education. Vote buyers tend to be in their 40s, affluent and Republican.

Personal Magnetism

Some people will try anything, even magnetic shoes--call them open-minded, but the Consumer Justice Center (CJC), a California nonprofit consumer protection group, calls them gullible.

The CJC filed suit this summer against Florsheim, claiming the footwear giant's promotional literature for their magnet-laden shoes made unsubstaniated claims of increased blood circulation and energy levels and pain relief.

While many manufacturers claim their products have extraordinary powers, the CJC was alarmed that a large company like Florsheim would use such tactics. CJC wants Florsheim to stop touting the MagneForce shoes as remedies and refund the $122 purchase price.

Kevin Christopher, public relations director for Skeptical Inquiry, the investigative journal that got the ball rolling in the Florsheim case by writing an open letter of concern to the company, says that there is "no good scientific evidence that magnets work to ease pain. And besides, the magnets in these shoes are no more powerful then refrigerator magnets. A much, much larger magnetic field is needed to produce any detectable effect in the human body."

The idea of magnetic relief is not new. For decades, magnets have been said to alleviate back pain, poor circulation, insomnia and even impotence. Today they are a $5 billion worldwide industry, especially popular in Asia.

"None of these magnetic products have ever been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the claims that are being made for them," says FDA public affairs officer Janet McDonald.

But many consumers don't give a hoot about what the FDA hasn't approved. One popular line of magnetic braces, Homedics, comes with a doctor's claim that "relief brought by magnets lasts longer than relief by painkilling drugs."

"These have really caught on around here," says Maureen Bayer, an employee at Natural Treasures, which sells the braces. "They really work for most people."

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From the October 18-25, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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