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A New Call for Political Reform : Campaign Competition Is Healthy but Too Costly, Study Panel Says

August 27, 1989|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — A nonprofit group has renewed the call for campaign financing reforms in Long Beach, while warning that Signal Hill's strict campaign regulations are being undermined by sloppy record keeping.

The California Commission on Campaign Financing, a private, bipartisan organization, examined campaign financing practices in Los Angeles County and eight cities in the Los Angeles area, including Long Beach and Signal Hill.

In Long Beach, the commission found some encouraging trends. Incumbents have encountered strong challenges and candidates have spent a significant amount of their campaign funds on wooing voters, rather than on overhead or fund-raising efforts.

"Long Beach in a sense has had very healthy, competitive elections," said Robert Stern, the commission's co-director. "The problem is that the cost is going way up."

Spending Up Dramatically

Campaign donations and spending have mushroomed since the mid-1970s, reflecting a national trend. In 1975, the commission noted, the average City Council candidate spent $5,000 to $10,000 on his election bid. In 1986, the average candidate spent nearly $25,000, and one candidate spent $124,000.

The commission attributed much of that spiraling cost to a steady flow of developer contributions that have fattened campaign coffers and given candidates more to spend.

"Lucrative redevelopment contracts and promising economic opportunities have . . . raised the financial stakes involved in Long Beach governmental decisions--dramatically affecting the character of political campaigns," wrote the authors of a commission report summarizing the group's findings.

To counter the rising spending figures, the commission recommended that the city create public funding for campaigns, impose a spending limit that would restrict total spending per candidate to $75,000 per election for council seats and $150,000 per election in mayoral contests. The limits would apply to any candidate who accepted partial public matching funds.

The commission also suggested that donors, both companies and individuals, be allowed to contribute no more than $500, and that those who have contracts with the city or who are bidding for contracts be barred from making election contributions.

Reform Effort Halted

Calls for campaign reforms are not new to Long Beach. Last year a coalition of citizen groups was working on a local ballot referendum that would have created public financing for elections as well as spending limits.

But the passage of a state ballot initiative on campaign financing brought that effort to a sudden halt. "That stopped us in our tracks," said Michael Ferrall, director of the Long Beach chapter of Common Cause, one of the organizations promoting local campaign regulations.

In addition to setting limits of $1,000 to $5,000 on campaign contributions to individual candidates, and prohibiting the transfer of campaign funds between political candidates, Proposition 73 also bars public campaign funding.

However, it allows local governments to set lower limits on campaign donations. Moreover, the commission argues that Proposition 73 may not apply to charter cities such as Long Beach, leaving it the authority to give out partially matching public funds to candidates who agree to spending limits.

Wait for Clarification

The coalition promoting local campaign regulations is not so sure.

"As we understand it, the Long Beach City Council cannot pass a law limiting expenditures," said Sid Solomon of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, another group that has lobbied for local limits.

Ferrall said his coalition is as eager as ever to bring financing reforms to Long Beach, but it wants to wait until more court cases have clarified the effect of Proposition 73 on local financing laws before renewing its crusade.

Mayor Ernie Kell also suggested it would be a waste of time to pursue any local campaign regulations until the legal confusion over financing restrictions has been cleared up.

Kell was elected to the full-time mayor's position last year in the most expensive political race in Long Beach history. The three candidates spent about $1 million. "It bothered me. I didn't like it," said Kell, adding that he would support the city's adoption of stricter contribution limits than passed in Proposition 73, but not public financing.

Signal Hill Studied

Signal Hill, which enacted unusually restrictive contribution limits and reporting requirements after several local election scandals, has good laws but sloppy enforcement, according to the commission.

When commission researchers went to Signal Hill, the city clerk's office could provide them with only a few campaign disclosure reports for the years 1974 to 1984.

"If Signal Hill's ordinance is to have any impact on local elections, and if the city's residents are to have access to information on local campaign contributions and spending, the commission suggests that the procedures in the city clerk's office must be improved," the commission report stated.

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