LONG BEACH — While several City Council members still don't like the idea of limiting how much candidates can receive and spend during elections, they are now prepared to let the voters decide.
A majority of the nine-member council voiced support this week for placing a measure to reform campaign finances on the November ballot.
The council members' positive comments Tuesday provided a sharp contrast to the past, when they either outright rejected or quietly let die any plans to curtail spending during local political campaigns. Supporters of reform applauded the council's move to set a public hearing on the proposal for May 17.
Funds Would Be Matched
But supporters agreed that the reform proposal, which includes giving candidates matching public funds, will face a few hurdles. Although the council majority expressed support for sending the issue to the voters, several members said they disagree with aspects of the proposal.
Michael Ferrall, director of the Long Beach chapter of Common Cause, said the concerns expressed by council members can be ironed out. "We are moving along the path we want to move," he said.
Council members will again discuss the proposal after the public hearing set for 6 p.m. on May 17 in City Hall. The council must meet an Aug. 9 deadline if the financing issue is to be placed on the November ballot.
The council has not yet made clear how it would raise the money needed to match campaign donations.
City officials are under pressure to consider campaign reforms in part because candidates in the current mayoral race have been spending record amounts of money.
"If you don't want special interests to buy elections, you have to support some type of campaign finance reform," said Fred Kugler of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved. Kugler's group has joined with Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to endorse the proposal.
The proposal before the council would limit contributions to mayoral candidates to $1,500 per individual or political committee. Any amount up to about $86,000 would be matched with public funds. Spending would be limited to $1 per registered voter--or about $172,000. In the case of a runoff, the candidates would be allowed to receive up to $46,000 in matching funds and the spending ceiling would be lowered to 50 cents per registered voter--or about $86,000.
In the case of council candidates, the plan would limit contributions to $750 per individual or political committee, and as much as $21,000 could be available in matching funds. Spending would be limited to $1 per person in the each district--or about $42,000. Again, in the case of a runoff, all amounts would be cut by half.
The restrictions would be voluntary, but public attention would fall heavily on candidates who refused to comply. Only those who sign a written consent to abide by the limitations would be eligible for matching funds.
To qualify for public funds--$1 for each $1 raised--mayoral candidates would need a minimum of 200 contributions of at least $10 each from local residents. City Council candidates would need 50 contributions of at least $10 each.
Councilman Wallace Edgerton said he is concerned that 50 contributions of at least $10 is not substantial enough to qualify a candidate to receive public funds. Edgerton also complained that all candidates should be required to file economic-interest reports and financial reports--regardless of how much money they spend. (Currently, candidates who report spending less than $1,000 are not required to file detailed campaign-finance reports.) In his recent reelection bid, Edgerton competed against a candidate who reported spending less than $1,000 on his campaign.
Councilwoman Jan Hall also cited problems with the proposal. As she has in the past, Hall reiterated her concern that a cap on spending would hinder new candidates competing against incumbents, who typically get more media coverage because they are often in the news. Hall called campaign finance reform "an incumbent's insurance policy."
But Edgerton and Hall said after the meeting that their concerns could be worked out and that they believe the issue will end up on the November ballot.
"I think that the public is getting concerned about what some would term as an obscene amount of money (spent on local campaigns)," Hall told her colleagues. In her race for mayor against incumbent Ernie Kell, Hall has reported spending almost $265,000 thus far. Kell has reported spending more than $332,000.
Vice Mayor Warren Harwood was the most outspoken opponent of the proposal, which exempts any expenditures made by a person or group not affiliated with a candidate. The clause, Harwood said, leaves incumbents open to last-minute mudslinging by groups or individuals who oppose the incumbent but who are not affiliated with an opponent.
Councilman Clarence Smith, who supports placing the matter on the ballot, said no plan is foolproof or without loopholes.
Harwood said the issue is being politicized and pushed now because of the pending mayoral election. He also complained that he has not seen realistic figures on how much the proposal could cost taxpayers.
Councilman Tom Clark, a staunch proponent of campaign finance reform, said it will cost about $175,000 per year--or less than 45 cents per resident.
Councilman Evan Anderson Braude said he would prefer that his colleagues pass the measure outright. But if there is no majority to make the proposal law, he endorsed sending the matter to the voters. "I think it's time we do something," Braude said.
Kell, the city's appointed mayor, said voters "should have an opportunity to express their views on it."