Updated 8:34 p.m.
Councilman Brian P. Bilbray has apologized to local voters, the local Chamber of Commerce and its president for a potentially misleading flier that may win him a seat on the Imperial Beach City Council.
At their meeting Wednesday, chamber members agreed to ask Bilbray for a formal apology letter so it can be shared with members and posted on the organization’s website, which Bilbray has agreed to write.
Bilbray told IB Patch the flier—suggesting an endorsement by the chamber and its leader, Olivia Pickerling—is embarrassing and a poor reflection of his character.
"It's a big mistake on my part," he said Thursday. "I'd never intentionally do anything to hurt my relationship with Ms. Pickerling or the chamber."
Mailed to local voters days before Nov. 6, the flier was criticized Thursday by Councilman Jim King, one of Bilbray’s opponents, as “sneaky” and “an abuse.”
King said he doesn’t believe Bilbray intended for the flier to come out the way it did, but he still deserves blame for its contents.
Physical education teacher and longtime lifeguard Bobby Patton easily won election to the Imperial Beach City Council, but the race for the second of two seats was close between incumbents Bilbray and King.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting around 2 a.m. Nov. 7, Bilbray led by 96 votes, but 460,000 absentee and provisional ballots were left to tally countywide.
As of 4:30 p.m. Thursday, King inched closer to closing the gap, trailing by only 86 votes, with 120,000 votes left to count.
The flier was sent to voters three days before the election and left the impression that the Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce and its president Olivia Pickerling were endorsing Bilbray.
The flier underwritten by Bilbray’s campaign was sent to 2,500 registered voters yet to cast their ballot, he said.
According to county records, about 11,100 Imperial Beach residents were registered to vote.Pickerling said she backed Bilbray—but only as a private citizen, since endorsements violate the chamber’s bylaws.
It didn't take long, she said, for reactions to pour in from chamber members and other candidates who sought endorsements but were denied.
“Someone else sent it out, but the chamber is the one that has to deal with it,” she said. “Well, I’m the one that has to deal with it.”
The group did not react immediately because they wanted to speak with their legal counsel first, and at one point considered a lawsuit.
The flier does mention Pickerling endorsed Bilbray as a private citizen, but in a font size “you could only read with a microscope” in the bottom lefthand corner, she said.
“I sent him an email, text and called to indicate what should be put on them but none of that was paid attention to,” she said.
Bilbray knew better, Pickerling said, because he has been the city’s liaison to the chamber of commerce for the past year. The chamber’s inability to endorse candidates was discussed at a meeting held a month ago.
Bilbray said he communicated Pickerling’s wish that any use of her name mention that she endorsed as a private citizen, but the printer ignored those instructions.
Actions speak louder than words, Bilbray said, “and my actions do not speak very highly of me right now.”
“I apologize to Imperial Beach as a whole, the Chamber of Commerce and Mrs. Pickerling in particular.”
It’s anyone's guess whether or not the fliers made enough of a difference to determine the outcome of the election, Bilbray said, and he doesn’t think it’s fair that the flier may have played a role in his victory, but what’s done is done.
“There’s nothing that I can really say to make this OK, but it was not intentional,” he told Patch in a phone interview Thursday. “It was just a rush-rush thing and I trusted the wrong guy, which is the problem with not really knowing who you’re dealing with.”
The fliers were put together Friday before the election by John Franklin and his firm Pacific Political, someone Bilbray met through his congressman father’s campaign, he said.
A lack of time prevented him from viewing the flier for final approval before it was sent to voters, he said.
“I saw it [for the first time] when I got it in the mail that day,” he said.
Franklin said Bilbray did review the flier before it was sent to voters, and both he and Bilbray failed to catch the chamber logo upon review.
"I rely exclusively on the candidates to provide this information," he said. "I would tell you the same thing Brian told you: that there was no intent on our part to falsely convey endorsement of the chamber. That was absolutely not the intention."
He also said the flier was nearly identical to one used in Bilbray's run for council in 2010.
Franklin is an alternate of the San Diego County Republican Party and was recently elected to the Vista Irrigation District Board.
His firm did work for half a dozen San Diego city council and state assembly races this fall and was very busy in the last days of the election season.
"At the 11th hour, it's like an emergency room after a bus crash. You're just triaging," he said.
Councilman King said he doesn’t believe Bilbray intended for the flier to come out the way it did, but still deserves blame for its content.
“It looks to me like it was done intentionally, and if he [Bilbray] did not step in and say this is not appropriate, then shame on him for not knowing better,” King said.
“You have to be responsible for the contents of what’s put out there if you’re representing the public. It calls his integrity into question, as it should any public official.”
“He's absolutely right. It’s your actions that defines you as a person, and like I said, I’m embarrassed by it and not happy about it at all," Bilbray said.
King says there’s no way to tell whether the flier determined the outcome of the election. Still, King blames himself for the outcome of the race, and that he should have worked harder to get re-elected.
“I feel bad for those people who were really supporting me and I feel like I kind of let them down,” he said, adding that an illness kept him from canvassing weeks before the election.
King said he intends to stay a part of Imperial Beach civic life, and wants to assist the city with alternative energy and sustainability programs in the future.
During the campaign, Bilbray and King both racked up endorsements in some key areas: Bilbray was endorsed by the San Diego County Republican Party, and King by San Diego Democrats.
Bilbray was supported by the Yes on Prop. S campaign and supported the medical marijuana initiative Prop. S, while King declared early in his candidacy that he would vote no on Prop S.
Both incumbents were endorsed by the Deputy Sheriff's Association of San Diego County.