Councilman asks for campaign finance rules

Councilman asks for campaign finance rules

Michele Ellson

City Councilman Doug deHaan is asking his dais-mates to once again consider long-discussed campaign finance rules. The council is scheduled to take up deHaan’s request at its regular meeting Tuesday.

In addition to imposing a campaign finance ordinance, deHaan wants city staff to conduct an analysis of campaign finance activities for the November 2010 election to see whether they would have complied with a proposed ordinance that was at the time being vetted by the city’s Sunshine Task Force.

"It should have been brought forward earlier," deHaan said of the ordinance. "Let's just move on and get the thing adopted."

DeHaan said he wants the spending review in order to offer a sense of how campaigns have been financed, "and nothing more." But he also raised questions about some of the spending that took place during the 2010 campaign, during which deHaan - who is termed out of his council seat this year - ran for mayor against two better-funded candidates and in the face of mailers from two independent political action groups who spent thousands of dollars to oppose his candidacy.

The ordinance sent to the council can't legally address independent expenditures, though a bill being considered by the state Legislature would broaden disclosures on those.

The proposed ordinance would require candidates and political action committees to name donors offering contributions of $100 or more and would limit contributions to candidates and campaign committees to an aggregate of $500 per source, an amount that would be adjusted for inflation. Contributions could only be accepted during a designated one-year election period.

The proposed ordinance would also impose voluntary spending limits of $35,000 for a mayor’s race and $25,000 for council, treasurer and auditor races, though it doesn’t propose that the city offer campaign cash for those who adopt the voluntary limit. It would also prohibit contractors working with the city or in line to work with the city from donating to local political campaigns and would enhance disclosure filing requirements. Candidates who violate the rules would face removal from the campaign or from office, and they and other violators could face fines. Any city resident could sue if they believe the rules weren’t followed.

The proposed ordinance doesn't limit the amount of money someone can lend to their own campaign or the amount an independent group can spend to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure. Existing law requires that contributions of $100 or more be disclosed, though there are no local limits on how much money a candidate or campaign committee can take from any single source.

Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward and Fremont are neighboring communities that already have campaign finance rules in effect.

The council considered a campaign finance ordinance in June 2010 that was drafted by Highsmith, but voted 3-2 to hold off on imposing it, instead sending it to the Sunshine Task Force for review. Then-Councilwoman Marie Gilmore, who called the request to approve an ordinance at that time hasty and politically motivated, said she didn’t think it was fair to impose spending limits in the middle of an active campaign.

The task force sent a revised ordinance to the city in January 2011, along with a 32-page sunshine ordinance aimed at making city government more transparent and user-friendly. City staff forwarded the sunshine ordinance to the council for its consideration that October, but held on to the campaign finance ordinance for consideration at a later date.

Leaders of the local League of Women Voters wrote the council on March 17 asking members to consider implementing a campaign finance ordinance. The letter also asked the council to support the California Disclose Act of 2012, which would require political action committees that are now not required to identify their funders to list top funders in ads and on campaign materials.

“Even at the local level there are perceptions of undue influence from contributions to candidates and/or elected officials. Stronger campaign finance regulations will provide transparency in government and greater confidence in elected officials," Karen Butter of the League of Women Voters of Alameda said.

Butter said campaign finance reform efforts aim to combat corruption and undue influence, level the playing field for candidates and boost citizen participation and the public's ability to learn how candidates' campaigns are financed. She said the League is hopeful an ordinance will be in place by the end of this year.

"Our advocacy is not an attempt to address concerns about an elected official or a specific issue but a matter of good government," said Butter, who said the League has been working to get reforms in place for three years.

Four of the five mayoral candidates who ran in 2010 took contributions that exceeded $500, including deHaan, campaign finance records from that race showed, as did five of the eight candidates for City Council. Gilmore and former Councilman Franks Matarrese each spent more than the voluntary limit the proposed campaign finance ordinance would impose, as did Councilwoman Lena Tam, Councilman Rob Bonta and Planning Board member Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, all of whom ran for City Council in 2010. DeHaan collected $23,434 over the last six months of 2010, campaign finance records showed, an amount that included $6,000 in personal loans to his campaign and donations from three people that exceed the $500 limit.

Local unions offered some of the top contributions to local campaigns, including Alameda’s firefighters union, which shelled out $13,300 to support Gilmore’s mayoral campaign and more than $46,000 for races in and around Alameda in 2010, disclosure records showed. The firefighters' political action committee also spent nearly $9,400 on a mailer opposing deHaan, records showed - money they could spend again even if the ordinance were put in place.

The proposed ordinance also doesn't address tens of thousands of dollars an arm of former Alameda Point developer SunCal Companies spent on mailers to oppose deHaan, Matarrese, Councilwoman Beverly Johnson and council candidate Jean Sweeney. And candidates would still be able to spend unlimited amounts on their own campaigns: Ezzy Ashcraft, for example, pumped $46,300 of her own money into her 2010 council campaign, records showed.

But it could prevent post-election donations like the ones the firefighters' political action committee made to everyone on the council but deHaan in the months leading up to approval of their most recent contract.

While the state Disclose Act would require political action committees to list their top donors in campaign ads and mailers, it would not limit the amount of money the committees could spend independent of a campaign to support or oppose a candidate. The bill - a similar version of which came two votes shy of passing the Assembly in January - may have required the committee responsible for sending anonymous mailers attacking deHaan, Johnson and Matarrese to disclose its top funders on them, but it would not have limited the amount of money the group spent.

DeHaan acknowledged the limitations of local campaign finance reform efforts but said he is hopeful that putting reforms in place can limit the cost of elections and enhance accountability. Candidates who exceed voluntary spending limits, for example, could face increased scrutiny if their competitors honored them, he said.

"I hope we all can accept it and move forward," deHaan said.

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