LONG BEACH — A City Council committee, after a two-year flirtation with limiting local campaign contributions, revived the idea this week at the urging of three political activist groups.
"The council has to realize that if we don't begin to do something, there is strong citizen interest in putting it on the ballot," said Councilman Thomas Clark.
Clark, chairman of the Finance Committee, which began hearings on campaign reform on Tuesday, was referring to the efforts of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.
The three groups have worked together since August to draft a proposal that would regulate the current "unhealthy combination of money and campaigns," Michael Ferrall of Common Cause told the committee.
Costly Race Predicted
Spending in two City Council races--in the 1st and 3rd districts--exceeded $200,000 in 1986. And voter approval last November of a full-time mayor elected citywide prompted predictions that costs could reach $500,000 when that race is first contested in 1988.
The new proposal would limit contributions in City Council district races to $500 from an individual and $1,000 from a group, with a maximum of $20,000 from all groups.
Contributions in the four citywide races, including the mayor's, would be held to $1,000 for an individual and $2,500 from groups, with a maximum of $80,000 from groups.
The proposal also calls for public financing of campaigns, which sponsors say would cost taxpayers about $165,000 a year. Candidates would receive matching funds up to $25,000 in council races and $100,000 in the mayor's race if they agree to limit total spending to $50,000 for council and $200,000 for mayor.
Participation would be voluntary, since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government cannot limit campaign spending unless candidates agree to accept public money.
Public financing, used in presidential races since 1976, has been adopted by 11 states and many local governments, including those in Sacramento and Tucson, Ariz., Ferrall said.
Strong penalties, including loss of office for violators, would accompany the reforms, which are set for discussion March 31.
However, this week's hearing indicated how difficult it may be to get council approval for reform. All three committee members--Clark, Warren Harwood and Clarence Smith--said they supported the concept of campaign limitations.
But Clark and Smith said they would favor public financing of campaigns only if it is approved by voters.
And Harwood, a longtime supporter of contribution limits, said his interest in reform has waned. He said that loopholes that have undercut the City of Los Angeles' 1984 campaign reform ordinance have forced him to drop his support of that law as a model for Long Beach.
Unlimited Fund Raising
Although the Los Angeles ordinance restricts the amount council candidates can raise through their campaign fund, it allows council members to raise unlimited amounts through political action committees that they say are not related to their council jobs or reelection campaigns.
"People may be a little startled by my change of position, but I never intended to propose something that wouldn't work," Harwood said. "I'm not optimistic because the best have tried this, and I have not seen anybody come up with something that would serve us."
Harwood said he probably would oppose use of public money on campaigns instead of on necessities such as parks and streets.
"People are not as upset with the money in these elections as long as it isn't theirs," he said.
In an interview, Mayor Ernie Kell, who is expected to run against Clark for mayor in 1988, said he has detected no strong public or council interest in campaign reform in Long Beach.
"We have not had a problem in Long Beach with corruption, so there's no hue and cry for reform," Kell said.
Kell, a wealthy retired real estate developer, said he would have particular problems with any effort to limit candidates' contributions to themselves.
A provision of the new plan would effectively limit how much candidates give their campaigns by categorizing their donations that exceed $1,000 in council races and $2,500 for mayor as group contributions. The new plan would limit group contributions to $20,000 for district races and $80,000 for those citywide.
Deputy City Atty. William Keiser said it may be illegal to set maximums for group contributions.
"I don't want to say that they are absolutely unsupportable, but they do seem to go beyond (existing law)," Keiser said. "The council would have to decide whether they want to make new law."
Ferrall acknowledged that "there has been no law tested on that score."
A cap on contributions in city races was first proposed in December, 1984, by Harwood. It languished in committee for more than a year, was revamped by Harwood and Clark a year ago and still went nowhere despite modest support from newly elected councilmen Evan Anderson Braude and Ray Grabinski.
Clark said, however, that public support for reform seems to be building.
"Generally, people are very supportive of these campaign limitations. I think their fear is that the office can be bought either by individuals who have their own money or by those who are overly susceptible to those who have large resources," he said.
Ferrall said a 1986 poll commissioned by Common Cause found that 68% of the state's adults favored campaign financing reform, including use of public funds, if that would reduce money spent on campaigns.
Clark said that Tuesday's hearing was just the beginning of a process that may not be concluded in time to regulate contributions in next year's spring races.