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County Campaign Laws Need Update

October 20, 2002|Shirley Grindle | Shirley Grindle is a longtime community activist.

Measure A has been placed on the Nov. 5 ballot to update the county's campaign-reform ordinance. The ordinance has been in effect since 1978, when a broad-based citizens group known as Tin Cup qualified the first campaign ordinance for the ballot. An updated version of Tin Cup was approved by voters in 1992, and the resulting campaign ordinance has governed all elections for county office for the last 10 years.

The 1992 ordinance needs to be updated to comply with recent court decisions and to tighten up reporting and disclosure requirements.

For these reasons, I asked the Board of Supervisors to place Measure A on the ballot for voter approval.

In the 10 years since county voters revised the campaign ordinance, several disturbing events have occurred that demand changes to the ordinance. The most glaring and opportunistic of these events occurred in the recent campaign for the 4th District supervisor, in which more than a dozen slate mailers were devoted largely to supporting a single candidate.

A legitimate slate mailer lists many candidates who are recommended to the voters by the organization producing the slate mailer. The slate mailers in question, however, contained 3 1/2 full-color pages devoted to only one candidate.

Normally the candidate would have paid for and produced his own literature, but in this case, the slate mailer organization produced the campaign literature.

Because contributions to a slate mailer organization are not regulated by the existing ordinance, the candidate was able to get around the county's $1,000 contribution limit, and this candidate received contributions in excess of $600,000 to produce and distribute his campaign literature cloaked as a slate mailer.

This was clearly an orchestrated deception, deliberately aimed at circumventing the spirit and intent of the campaign ordinance.

The Board of Supervisors closed this loophole in July when it passed an ordinance regulating slate mailers. That language is included in Measure A.

Another change included in Measure A is that husband-and-wife contributions will no longer be aggregated. This has long been a controversial issue particularly for those spouses who have separate incomes.

But it should be remembered that husband-and-wife contributions were aggregated at the request of many couples that are part of the "captive audience" -- the small-business owners who contributed $1,000 (the current limit) and then received a phone call from the candidate or his representative reminding them that their spouse could give another $1,000.

Nevertheless, it is fairly apparent that the courts view the aggregation of husband-and-wife contributions as unconstitutional and discriminatory to married couples. For that reason, this change is reluctantly included in Measure A, and we can only rely on the moral integrity of county candidates and elected officials not to abuse this provision.

Measure A includes a number of improvements concerning the reporting and disclosure of contributions and expenditures. A contributor would be required to disclose to the candidate any other contributions made at his direction by a business or other entity that he or she owns or controls.

As it is now, only the candidate is responsible for determining which contributions are aggregated, and this has proved to be extremely burdensome and requires a level of detective work that is outside the purview of most candidates.

By requiring the owner of a company to disclose his ownership if he makes contributions both personally and through his company, the burden of full disclosure will be placed on both the candidate and the contributor.

Another reporting requirement that should assist candidates in the last hectic weeks before election day is that any individual or committee that makes a late independent expenditure for or against a county candidate will be required to notify all candidates running for that office within 24 hours.

Independent expenditures are generally made in the last few days before an election when there is not sufficient time to respond to whatever erroneous information is printed or otherwise distributed. This 24-hour notice is an attempt to provide early notice to candidates so that they may respond to last-minute attacks and to discourage the use of "hit mail" just before an election.

The media and other watchdogs of county campaigns will appreciate a new provision requiring the filing of a post-election campaign statement that discloses contributions and expenditures made during the 16 days before an election and the 10 days after it.

This is particularly beneficial for elections held in March because campaign-disclosure reports under existing law are not due until the July 31 after a March election. The public is kept in the dark too long as to the campaign activities just before and after an election, which is often the period of most interest. Measure A corrects this omission by requiring the filing of a campaign disclosure report 15 days after the election.

In summary, Measure A:

* Updates the current campaign-reform ordinance so that it reflects recent court decisions.

* Tightens up the reporting and disclosure requirements for candidates running for county office, for certain contributors, and for those making independent expenditures in county elections.

* Retains the contribution limit of $1,000 per election and prohibits the Board of Supervisors from raising this limit without approval of the voters.

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