Op-Ed: It’s time to have a conversation about campaign finance reform

Photo by Alhambra Source.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra does not have a campaign finance ordinance, or as many cities call it, an anti-corruption ordinance in its charter. That means people and businesses can give unlimited gifts and campaign donations to city council members and candidates. This has resulted in a pay-to-play political atmosphere that abets a political establishment that is more beholden to large donors and special interests than it is to Alhambra residents.

Alhambra’s absence of donor and/or campaign spending limits, lack of comprehensive transparency requirements, and shunning of by-district elections has fostered an uneven political playing field. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Alhambra can institute a campaign finance reform ordinance by a simple majority vote from the City Council, or a campaign finance reform charter amendment can be presented to the electorate via ballot initiative by either the City Council or the electorate itself.

Reforms that check the influence of money in politics are not uncommon. According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, almost one-third of cities in California have some type of campaign finance reform. California’s constitution imposes campaign finance regulations upon candidates who run for state office. There are even campaign finance laws for federal office as well. So it’s remarkable that Alhambra does not have any kind of campaign finance reform in its charter.

Campaign finance reform is common sense policy that acts as a check on corrupting influences that make representative government less representative. When money determines the outcome of local elections rather than qualifications, messaging, and competitiveness, we all lose.

Because people and entities can give unlimited gifts and monetary contributions to Alhambra City Council candidates, they do. However, in so doing, they risk a lot. This includes decreasing the competitiveness of elections by increasing its costs; fostering bias and bad government policies from candidates, marginalizing the small contributions and preferences of the majority and creating an apathetic electorate.

The end result is essentially a system in which the wants of a wealthy minority are granted precedence over the preferences of the community at-large. In other words, this means a government that is less representative of its residents than it is of real estate developers, city contractors, and other moneyed interests.

In the short-term, the absence of campaign finance reform in Alhambra almost ensures that the favored candidates of moneyed interests will win Alhambra elections. This has likely contributed to an incessant flouting of the General Plan through spot zoning and reinterpretation, over-development and lax development oversight practices, no-bid city contracts to big-money donors, corruption, and an electorate that has checked out. Only 20 percent of Alhambra residents voted for city council candidates in 2016—a presidential election year. The number was even lower in 2014.

This is the cost of unchecked money in Alhambra politics. But Alhambrans can change this if they want to. There are many examples at the end of this article of what the City can do.

I encourage Alhambrans to ask their locally elected leaders why Alhambra does not have any kind of campaign finance reform. I also encourage Alhambrans to urge their City Council to adopt comprehensive campaign finance reform measures. If some of Alhambra’s City Council members support campaign finance reform, then they should say so and then act accordingly to institute these reforms. City Hall should not, however, construct a campaign finance reform bill behind closed doors and without public input. The community must have a say in the breadth and scope of the type of reforms to be instituted. Watered down reforms that are non-comprehensive and non-binding are disingenuous and inconsequential.

If the Alhambra City Council does not support campaign finance reform then they should publicly say so and explain why. If they remain mute on the matter, then Alhambrans can come to their own conclusions about where their elected leaders stand on campaign finance reform.

Campaign finance reform in Alhambra will ultimately be determined by the residents of Alhambra. The Alhambra City Council can be an active, passive, or obstructive participant in the process. It is their choice. But what they cannot do is stop Alhambrans from voting reforms into reality if they wish to do so.

Here are some examples of campaign finance reforms that Alhambra can institute:

Donor Limits: The most common type of campaign finance reform is donor limits. The City of Pomona has a $500 yearly donor limit. The City of Los Angeles has a $700 donor limit that adjusts based on inflation. Donor limits vary based on the size of the city, but the purpose is to help level the playing field by preventing special interests from directly giving disproportionate amounts of money to favored candidates who can then use the money to drown out opposition candidate messaging.

Ban Campaign Donations from Lobbyists, Developers, and City Contractors: Temple City recently passed a ballot measure that bars developers and city contractors from giving gifts and campaign contributions to City Council members and candidates. Los Angeles is considering similar legislation. Such reforms would have significantly leveled the playing field in Alhambra’s last city council election.

Expenditure Ceilings: Some cities, like Los Angeles, impose campaign expenditure ceilings on candidates for local office. Temple City has a campaign expenditure ceiling equal to $0.50 per resident, which would really only level the playing field if all candidates agreed to the ceiling.

By-District Elections: Moving to by-district elections greatly levels the playing field in local politics. In Alhambra,  a candidate has to reside in one of Alhambra’s five districts, but everyone in the city gets to vote for each candidate. This greatly increases the cost of running for city council because candidates have to campaign across the entire city rather than focusing their efforts just in their district. It also results in council members who are less representative of the constituents from their districts. By-district elections mandate that only people from a candidate’s district get to vote for him/her, allowing candidates to focus their time and resources just within the districts they are from, which can significantly bridge the money gap between candidates, increase district representation, and encourage more grassroots candidates to run.

Increased Transparency Laws: One of the easiest ways to combat money’s corrupting effects on local government is to make it easier for the public to see who’s funding each candidate’s campaign. This can be done by electronically posting city council members’ and candidates’ campaign finance reports on the city’s website. These documents are public record, but most people do not know how to access them nor do they have the time and/or money to find them. Thus, making campaign finance records electronically accessible via the internet is not only sound democratic policy, but also a type of campaign finance reform. If the public sees that a candidate is taking a lot of special interest money then they may question that candidate’s intentions and/or think twice about voting for him/her. Candidates may also think twice about taking special interest money if they know that their Form 460s will be electronically accessible to the public.

Publicly Funded Elections: This electoral format exists in various forms, but it is based upon the idea of a more equal and accessible playing field in which all candidates are granted access to a predetermined pool of public money— they agree to forego private fundraising. Even if some candidates opt out, those that opt in still get access to the public campaign funds. The newest iteration of publically funded elections was recently instituted in Seattle, where registered voters each get a $100 campaign voucher that they are allowed to distribute to local candidates as they see fit.

Sean McMorris is the president of the San Gabriel Valley chapter of Represent US, a national anti-corruption non-profit.

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