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Council set to decide on campaign finance limits

Submitted by on 1, June 15, 2010 – 5:00 am3 Comments

Open government advocates are taking the city to task for proposed campaign finance rules that, some say, are inadequate and are being pushed through without appropriate public review.

The campaign finance ordinance up for a vote at tonight’s City Council meeting would limit contributions to prospective city officeholders to $250 per contributor, prohibit contributions from city contractors and publish contributors’ names on the city’s website at least a week before an election.

Candidates who violate the rules would face criminal and civil penalties. If the council okays the new rules tonight – which Mayor Beverly Johnson, Vice Mayor Doug deHaan and City Councilman Frank Matarrese have said they wish to do – they could take effect immediately.

“I welcome the Council’s interest in campaign finance reform and strongly encourage your efforts to limit the influence of money in our political process,” local resident Jon Spangler said in an e-mail to the city. “Unfortunately, the issue and the ordinance received far too little public review or input. As a result, the ordinance is inadequate to significantly limit the cost of election campaigns in Alameda.”

He joins the local League of Women Voters and former Alameda Journal editor-turned-campaign-strategist Jeff Mitchell – who has worked on both Johnson’s and Matarrese’s most recent campaigns – in asking the council to allow the public more of a chance to weigh in on the new campaign finance rules.

Spangler said he’s concerned the ordinance doesn’t control spending by political action committees that aid campaigns. And he and the League want the council to consider adding voluntary spending limits to the ordinance.

The ordinance doesn’t limit the amount of money a candidate for City Council, mayor, auditor or treasurer can spend on their own campaign, and ballot measures are also exempt from the rules as written.

Mitchell said wants the council-created Sunshine Task Force to which Johnson appointed him to have the chance to review it.

“I must admit that I was disappointed that an issue of such import as campaign finance reform was placed onto your agenda and voted upon without first making any meaningful attempt to solicit the wider public s opinion on this vital matter,” Mitchell wrote in a June 5 e-mail to the city. “Moreover, I believe the current ordinance before you is incomplete and contains several considerable loopholes.”

City Attorney Teresa Highsmith offered in late April to draft the ordinance at the behest of Johnson, deHaan and Matarrese. Council members Lena Tam and Marie Gilmore had asked that the public be offered the chance to say what they wanted to see, and they said the Sunshine Task Force was the appropriate venue for that input to be gathered.

But Johnson said at the council’s June 1 meeting that the public had waited long enough for the rules, and that any problems could be fixed at a later date.

Tam also argued at that meeting that passage of the rules in the middle of campaign season poses a conflict of interest for members of the council, two of whom – Matarrese and Gilmore – are running for mayor. Her seat and Matarrese’s are open this fall.

It was not clear if a decision to impose the new rules tonight would offer sitting council members an advantage over challengers in the November races. The next round of campaign finance disclosures isn’t due out until July.

Only two other people – former councilman Tony Daysog and Hospital Board trustee Rob Bonta – have announced plans to run for seats on the dais, though Johnson has been widely rumored to be considering a run for one of the open council seats in the wake of her defeat in the race for Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker’s seat.

The council nixed proposed rules that would have required written disclosures for contributors offering as little as $50 and oral disclosures for contributions from anyone seeking discretionary decisions from the Community Improvement Commission or Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority, the two redevelopment boards on which the council members all sit. It was originally slated to go into effect 30 days after passage.


  • Jon Spangler says:

    The latest version of the ordinance, which was heavily amended on June 1, is still “problematic” and still has many errors in it according to several League of Women Voters members who have reviewed the ordinance following June 2 when the text became available.

    This “clean it up later” approach is sloppy lawmaking, as Mayor Johnson, who is an attorney, should know. (So should the other candidate-Council Members who are apparently legislating in their own best interests while fundraising for current races.)

    Do we want a good law that is well written one or two months from now or do we want a “quick and dirty” ordinance ASAP that is still missing key provisions (like voluntary campaign finance expenditure limits that are based on the number of registered voters in Alameda and indexed to a reasonable local cost-of-living/inflation index)?

    And what are the REAL motivations of the three candidate-Councilmembers who want to pass this ordinance “now”?

    The rush to pass this ordinance does not instill confidence in this voter’s mind regarding some Council members’ motives…

  • dlm says:

    Whenever the term “open government” appears, somebody’s up to something.

    In this case, some observers feel that the proposed campaign finance reform will work to the disadvantage of anyone accepting donations from SunCal — which is why we’ve had this sudden hue and cry about the importance of good government and an “open process”.

    It does not help either when a strong supporter of an objecting (and pro-SunCal) Councilmember says in effect, “Hey, send it to my committee!”.

    Note also that this task force was convened for a very specific purpose over a relatively short time frame — and already has plenty to do — so it’s not at all clear whether the other members of the committee (other than John Knox White or Jeff Mitchell) are willing to take on campaign finance reform in its entirety. I bet they’re not, so I guess it’s a referral w/ no committee.

    As a practical matter, if the campaign finance ordinance goes to the Sunshine Task Force, it will be a long, long time before anything gets done with it — most likely, it will languish there until after the election, which is probably the intent.

  • Barbara Thomas says:

    Brings to mind that old saying, “A committee is a group of the unwilling, chosen from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.” Anything we wanted not to get done quickly, or ever, the council sent to committee.

    How many citizens cared enough when this was on the agenda to go to the meeting and speak or write their wishes to the council? So what if it is amended once it is passed and errors are detected? It is long overdue and should be passed at the very least to form the foundation upon which to base further reforms.

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