Hoping to tidy up the raucous election campaigns that have marked the Oceanside political scene, the City Council on Wednesday adopted campaign-finance reforms to put a strict lid on individual contributions and to tighten disclosure rules.
The council voted unanimously to approve the measures but stopped short of enacting a tough stipulation designed to outlaw "hit piece" campaign mailers in the hours before election day.
Supporters are pleased but suggested that it should be considered only a first step toward purifying the election process in Oceanside, which has long had a reputation as a hotbed of rough-and-tumble politics.
'Just a Beginning'
"I think this is just a beginning," said Leo Katcher, a local resident who served on a committee to study the reforms.
Others said the reforms simply are not strict enough.
"There's nothing wrong with them, but they do not go far enough to correct the problems here in Oceanside," said Melba Bishop, a former councilwoman and reform proponent. "They're putting a Band-Aid on a ruptured artery."
The council's support of the measures marks a radical turnaround for the city leaders, who only a month ago rejected the notion of campaign-finance reforms, citing insufficient community interest in the idea.
In the days after that, the council was stung by a barrage of letters and calls from constituents complaining about the decision not to pursue reforms, which became a hot topic after the 1986 council election when several candidates were targeted by campaign mailers that many city leaders deemed disgraceful.
Rocked by the solid show of community support for finance reform, the council agreed two weeks ago to again tackle the issue, ordering City Atty. Charles Revlett to draw up an ordinance incorporating various proposals.
Some reform supporters have suggested that the council's initial reluctance stemmed from political gamesmanship, noting that the proposals were being pushed by followers of Bishop, an arch-foe of the current council.
Katcher, meanwhile, said Councilwoman Lucy Chavez and Councilman Ben Ramsey, who sat on a special council committee that studied the proposals, were angered by run-ins with Bishop supporters during hearings earlier this year on the reform measures.
Moment of Anger Blamed
He said the two council members rejected the proposals in a "fit of pique" over the "venomous attacks" they were subjected to during the hearings but changed their minds "when they found out a lot of people cared" about the reforms.
Ramsey and Chavez, however, have insisted that their initial slowness stemmed strictly from the tepid show of interest for the reforms at the committee's hearings, which drew only two dozen participants.
Final approval of the reforms is expected in two weeks, and the new ordinances will go into effect 30 days later.
The reforms, which supplement existing state election laws, include:
- A cap on individual contributions of $250 to any candidate for elective office in Oceanside. State law has no limit on individual contributions.
- A $500 ceiling on contributions by political action committees or other organizations to any candidate or political action committee. Again, there are no state limits on such contributions.
- A requirement that any expenditure exceeding $50 by a candidate or political action committee be reported on the next disclosure statement.
- A stipulation that candidates must file a special report the Friday before an election noting all contributions received and all expenditures, aside from state-required finance reports.
- A limit of $5,000 that candidates can lend to their election effort. The state places no limit on such loans.
- A stipulation that any violation of the provisions are punishable by a fine of $500 or more and imprisonment for up to six months. No such fines or prison terms are called for by the state.
Although reform supporters were generally pleased, some were irked that the council failed to adopt a proposal to restrict "hit piece" mailers or to set lower standards for itemizing contributions.
State law requires that the identity of someone contributing $99 or less does not have to be revealed. Some reform supporters suggested limits of $50 or $25, and Bishop argued that all donations should be itemized.
More Restrictions Wanted
Bishop also was dismayed that the council failed to approve prohibitions on post-election campaign contributions. Such restrictions are needed, she said, because some special interests curry favor with donations then.
On the issue of restricting negative mailers, the council seemed poised Wednesday to adopt a proposal from Mayor Larry Bagley that would require candidates to submit all mailers to the City Clerk three days before the campaign literature is distributed.
"I think this council should announce its intention to clean up the election process wherever possible," Bagley said.
The council balked at the idea, however, when Revlett noted that the restriction might create significant problems, tying the hands of candidates eager to fire off counterattacks to negative hit pieces during the waning hours of a campaign.
There is not enough time for rebuttals in the days before an election, Revlett said, saying that such a restriction could be grounds for a candidate to challenge the electoral process.