Running for office in a small city shouldn't be too much of a financial burden. No one has ever spent more than $500 on a campaign in Alturas, a town of 3,025 souls in northeast California, for example.
Beverly Hills is different, however, and the League of Women Voters wants candidates for the April election to hold their spending to $65,000.
That may sound like a lot, but candidates have spent a lot more in Beverly Hills, where the biggest turnout for an election in recent years was just more than 9,000 voters.
City Councilman Bernie Hecht spent $105,698 on his campaign two years ago, at a cost of about $32.30 for every vote he received, and Mary Levin Cutler's unsuccessful bid in the same election cost $93,645, or $56.38 per vote.
"We were thinking about the idea of saving money on advertising and mailings and just give a $20 bill to each voter," joked Mayor Max Salter, who spent $97,227, or $28.08 a vote, when he ran for office in 1986.
"It's both absurd and obscene in a community of this size to spend that kind of dough," Salter said. "It precludes somebody without the ability to raise money to run for office."
Salter said he will be running again in the election scheduled for April 10, which will be canceled if no one runs against him and Robert K. Tanenbaum, the other incumbent whose term expires this year.
Dr. Tricia Roth, a pediatrician whose campaigns against alcohol in recent years have led some residents to nickname her the Carry Nation of Beverly Hills, took out papers to run for the City Council. But she said she has not yet decided whether to run. The filing deadline is Feb. 1.
"I'm having exploratory meetings with some people who are knowledgeable in politics," she said.
This is not the first time that the league has tried to limit the spending of aspiring City Council members.
"We've had a lot of community comment saying that it's a rather extravagant thing we do here, and that they're in favor of spending less," said Dorothy Kaufman, president of the league's Beverly Hills chapter.
Candidates for the Beverly Hills Unified School District Board of Education went along with a $40,000 limit in 1987, Kaufman said.
And, two years ago, all but one of the 12 candidates for three open seats on the five-member City Council agreed to spend no more than $60,000 on their campaigns.
But the agreement collapsed after one candidate said she had planned her campaign well in advance, "and she had a lot of commitments and whatever that was necessary for the campaign," Kaufman said. "So that went by the boards, and it cost well beyond $60,000, even for people who agreed to the limit."
This time, she said, the league decided that $65,000 would be a good figure, given the increased costs of mailing, printing, advertising and other promotions.
To the man or woman who has nothing, $65,000 and $100,000 are equally daunting amounts of money. But the job can be done for less.
Vice Mayor Allan L. Alexander spent $56,820, and brought in the most votes when he was elected to the City Council in 1988. Tanenbaum, who took his turn as mayor in 1988-'89, spent $55,623, and also got the most votes when he was first elected in 1986.
Alexander said that he likes the concept of a spending ceiling but cautions that setting it too low could scare challengers out of the race.
"If it's too restrictive, it can change the election process in ways that are not necessarily desirable, by giving a strong advantage to incumbents that are well-known in the community," he said.
Tanenbaum agreed. "Incumbents inherently have advantages and name recognition, an opportunity to be on television and have people evaluate our performance (on cable TV broadcasts of City Council meetings)."
The proposed limit is still a lot of money, but it doesn't buy all that much: two citywide mailings, perhaps, along with flyers, lawn signs, advertisements in the two local papers and the services of a local campaign manager.
The more expensive campaigns get rented offices and extra advertisements for their $100,000, as well as the advice of political professionals from Sacramento and San Francisco.
"One of the benefits (of a $65,000 limit) is that it will reduce the professional participation in the campaigns, which I personally feel is for the better," Alexander said.
But there are some drawbacks to the proposal, politicians and political observers said.
City Councilwoman Vicki Reynolds, who was elected in 1988 at a cost of $89,794, said that a last-minute mailing by a property-owners group forced her to send out an extra mailing late in the campaign.
Such spending by outside groups would not be affected by the league's proposal.
"Under those circumstances, limitations become unfair," Reynolds said.
Reynolds said she had already hired a campaign manager and made plans for a more expensive campaign before the league proposed its $60,000 limit in 1988. In the course of negotiations among the candidates, it was clear that other campaigns were also ready to spend more, she said.
Margaret Herman, legislative advocate in Sacramento for the League of Women Voters of California, said the league's position is that public matching funds should be made available to candidates who agree to abide by spending limits.
Such a matching fund system is already used in U.S. presidential elections.
Without the incentive of matching funds, candidates would have no reason to restrain spending, according to Matt Stodder, a senior researcher for the California Commission on Campaign Financing, an independent group that studies local campaign financing.
"If candidates feel they've really got to spend money, they'll do it," he said. "But if there's an incentive to keep them within limits, maybe they'll do that."