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Report Urges Limits on Campaign Spending for 2 Cities

August 27, 1989|VICKI TORRES | Times Staff Writer

A study of six years' worth of election financing in Pasadena and West Covina offers dramatic proof that campaign spending and contribution limits are needed in each city, according to a report released today by the California Commission on Campaign Financing.

The tripling of city election costs in Pasadena since elections by district were adopted in 1980 and the infusion in West Covina of more than $233,000 in city elections by the BKK Corp. during the early 1980s demonstrate the need for reform, according to the commission report.

Pasadena should enact spending limits of $35,000 per candidate in each election and contribution limits of $250 from individuals for each candidate, the report by the nonprofit commission suggested.

West Covina should consider asking candidates to agree to a $15,000 spending limit because election costs appear to be rising. It also should adopt a contribution limit of $500 per contributor to independent commidtees in order to limit the sway of outside entities such as the BKK landfill.

Officials in both cities, however, said there wasn't a need for reform because time and circumstances had cured any problems.

"I don't think we have an issue that comes close to approaching the magnitude that we had during that time," said West Covina Mayor Robert Bacon. "We went through a recall and a general election all within a one-year period. Those events are highly unlikely to occur again."

"It's a good report and well thought out," said Pasadena Director Rick Cole, who read a draft copy of the report. "But it doesn't take into its purview how much has changed since 1987, when it looked like democracy was on the ropes in Pasadena."

The 373-page report, "Money and Politics in Local Elections: The Los Angeles Area," took three years to prepare and is the first in-depth study of local campaign financing ever conducted in the United States, its authors say.

It included sophisticated computer analysis of $45 million worth of campaign expenditures from 1979 to 1986 in Los Angeles County and eight cities: Agoura Hills, Gardena, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Signal Hill and West Covina.

In its chapter on Pasadena, the report found that a change from citywide board of director elections to district elections had tripled campaign costs, instead of decreasing them as expected.

"With the electorate drastically reshaped from a single citywide constituency of 133,000 voters to seven district constituencies of 19,000 each, election costs were expected to diminish," the report said. "Yet exactly the opposite occurred."

Candidates' Spending

In 1979, under the citywide runoff format, 10 candidates combined spent $62,000. In 1983, with elections confined to the boundaries of seven districts, 10 candidates spent a total of $196,609.

Among the jurisdictions studied statewide, Pasadena candidates in the years between 1983 and 1985 spent the highest amount per vote, $21.55. Yet, the more they spent, the more likely they were to lose, the report found.

In 1983, incumbent Steve Acker spent $78 per vote, compared with challenger Rick Cole's winning expenditure of $22 per vote. Challenger Margaret Sedenquist spent $56 per vote in 1985 and lost to incumbent Jess Hughston, who spent $14.

The change to district-only elections also was expected to encourage smaller, individual contributions. Instead, in the 1983 and 1985 elections, 54% of the total contributions in Pasadena were $250 or more. Contributions of $1,000 and more accounted for almost a third of the total.

Sophisticated Campaigns

Pasadena candidates now "take for granted their need for expensive campaign techniques--sophisticated phone bank techniques, slick mailing strategies and consultants" as well as "targeted voter strategies," the report said.

Without a ceiling on campaign spending, grass-roots campaigns may become obsolete, the report concluded.

But Pasadena Mayor Bill Thomson challenged the report's analysis, saying that election costs decreased in 1987 and 1988.

"The amounts spent in the March 1989 election were even less," Thomson said. "I don't think any of the candidates running for office spent any more than $20,000 to $25,000."

Campaign reform in Pasadena is unnecessary because of state campaign spending limits on local elections that went into effect last year and the renewed power of community-based politics, Cole said.

In West Covina, the report concluded that, despite a campaign ordinance designed to limit outside influence in city elections, the city is still vulnerable to massive contributions, such as those poured into city campaigns in the early 1980s by BKK.

Recall Campaign

In 1981, when BKK was still operating a toxic dump in the city, it opposed a ballot proposition that would have banned toxic dumping by BKK and stopped construction of a Ponderosa Homes housing project on adjacent land. Both companies spent more than $160,000 to defeat the measure, and proponents spent only $1,482.

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