Council negotiates cap on campaign contributions

DOWNEY - The City Council moved one step closer to adopting new campaign finance reforms Tuesday night after Council members renegotiated the terms of an ordinance aimed at reducing the size of campaign spending by regulating the contributions given to local candidates.During the robust discussion regarding the seven-page draft ordinance, the Council agreed to tighten the limits on campaign spending by establishing a voluntary expenditure limit, which rewards candidates who spend less money during local elections. According to the original ordinance, the voluntary expenditure limit would require those candidates who accept its terms to spend no more than $52,000 during an election cycle. Councilman David Gafin, however, disputed the $50,000 figure, adamant that the proposed limit would fail to dissuade future candidates from "buying elections." "Why did we pick $52,000? Just because it was the highest figure last time around? It should be less," he said. "To me, this is what we're trying to prevent. When I ran in 2004, I only spent 6,400 bucks." Gafin proposed instead a $30,000 cap on expenditures in Districts 1-4 and a higher ceiling of $50,000 for those candidates running in the city-wide District 5. "It encourages a grassroots effort so we won't have professional politicians, but citizen politicians," said Gafin who along with Mayor Luis Marquez and Councilman Mario Guerra first requested the city look into comprehensive campaign finance reform. "We're preventing a potential problem. We're looking to the future," Gafin said. Councilman Roger Brossmer agreed with Gafin. "You don't want to set the limit at the max amount," Brossmer said. "It's about who's the best candidate not about who can send out the most mailers. The Council modified the draft ordinance to reflect the new expenditure limits recommended by Gafin. While the city cannot restrict candidates from using their own personal funds, candidates will face mandatory campaign contribution limits if the measure is adopted. According to the ordinance, written by city attorney Yvette Abich Garcia, candidates who accept the voluntary expenditure limit would have a $1,500 per person cap on all contributions made to their campaigns. Candidates who choose not to accept the expenditure limits could spend as much as they want during the campaign, but would only be able to collect a maximum of $1,000 per person. The City Council agreed to keep those contribution limits for Districts 1-4, but chose to increase the size of individual donations for candidates running in District 5. Since District 5 incorporates the entire city, candidates generally have to spend more money when running for the Council seat. As a result, the Council increased the contribution limit to $2,000 per person for candidates who accept the voluntary expenditure limit and $1,500 per person for candidates who don't accept the spending limits. "I like that cap - it's a reasonable cap," said Brossmer who proposed the elevated figures for District 5. Gafin also expressed support for the contribution limit change, noting that there's a slight increase in fundraising and expenses for candidates running for the city-wide seat. "I understand there are additional costs," Gafin said. "In District 5 there is a larger voter pool to draw from as opposed to one district." The Council also decided to raise the loan limit from $10,000 to $15,000, allowing candidates and their campaigns to borrow money from a sibling, parent, spouse or financial institution. If the ordinance is adopted, the ballot, ballot pamphlet and sample ballot will prominently designate those candidates who voluntarily accept the expenditure limit, said Garcia. After originally expressing interest in placing the ordinance before voters this November, Council members seemed to retract their support for a special election after staff informed the Council that adding the ordinance to the ballot could cost the city up to $155,000. "My answer is no," said Guerra with a laugh. "I'm not in favor of spending money to put this on the ballot. We can resolve this. I can't justify spending money to do this at this time." The City Council may choose to adopt the campaign finance ordinance as an amendment to the city's municipal code instead. Dozens of cities throughout the Los Angeles basin have campaign finance reforms in place including the neighboring cities of Bell Gardens, Whittier, South Gate, La Mirada, Commerce and Lynwood. Since 2004, the cost of City Council campaigns has gradually increased with candidates spending and raising more money each election year. Seven years ago, the top campaign collected nearly $35,500 in fundraising. During last year's election in District 4, the highest fundraising total reached well over $54,000. Marquez is hopeful that the Council can lower campaign costs and slow the increase in campaign spending by implementing the campaign finance ordinance. "The current system is dangerous without any caps," Marquez said. "What we're doing is huge - it's major reform." Garcia will revise the ordinance and bring it back before the Council prior to its approval.

********** Published: June 30, 2011 - Volume 11 - Issue 10