Ventura County supervisors Tuesday gave initial approval to a tough new ordinance that limits contributions to county election campaigns, expands financial reporting requirements and creates an ethics commission to go after violators.
Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to approve the proposal in concept but agreed to delay a formal vote on the new law until next week. Supervisor Judy Mikels cast the dissenting vote.
Supervisor Linda Parks, reflecting the views of other board members who supported the ordinance, said the public wants to know who is paying for a candidate's political message.
"Following the money is a big key to campaigns," Parks said. "Having that information available is really important."
The proposed ordinance ties contribution caps to voluntary spending limits. For supervisors, the spending cap would be $150,000 per election. For countywide offices, such as sheriff and district attorney, it would be $500,000.
Candidates who accept spending limits could receive up to $600 per contributor, while those who do not would be limited to $300.
Campaign reports would be posted on the Internet for anyone raising more than $25,000, and an ethics commission would be empowered to investigate possible violations and assess stiff fines.
Board members gave the go-ahead despite the heated opposition of several top county officials and union leaders. All of the county's elected department managers -- who would be required to follow the new law -- oppose the reform measure.
Assessor Dan Goodwin called it a "reemployment act for elected officials," arguing it would favor incumbents who don't need to buy name recognition.
Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said portions of the draft may not withstand legal challenge and asked for more time to review the 14-page document.
"It's simply too important to move in a hasty way," Totten said.
Supervisors Steve Bennett and Kathy Long, authors of the measure, said they are willing to wait another week to respond to the district attorney's concerns. But with three supervisors up for election in the March 2004 primary, they indicated they would be unwilling to put off a vote any longer than that.
The county has no law governing campaign finances.
"This is a living document. It can be revised," Bennett said. "But at some point in time, someone has to pass campaign finance reform."
Bennett said he voluntarily imposed a $500-per contributor limit in his 2000 election campaign to "show it can be done."
Public speakers voiced arguments for and against the proposal.
Patricia Murray, president of the local League of Women Voters, said the nonpartisan group has supported campaign finance reform for nearly three decades.
"We have long criticized the buying and selling of candidates for office," Murray said.
Others said that although the proposal may not be perfect, it's a good start. Oxnard resident Bradley Smith called it a "reasonable restraint" on runaway spending.
"I don't get dressed up much, but this was an important issue for me," said Smith, attired in a crisp gray suit.
But union leaders asked for a longer review period. One questioned the need for a law.
Rick Shimmel, executive director of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn., noted that the two highest-spending candidates in the March 2002 primary were defeated.
"Ventura County voters have historically rejected big money," Shimmel said. "In David-versus-Goliath campaigns, David wins."
Opponents also attacked the idea of an ethics commission made up of volunteer members nominated by supervisors. Some said it would become heavily politicized, but others contended it would be too independent.
Totten questioned whether the Board of Supervisors has the authority to create a commission having the power to summon witnesses and subpoena documents.
But an attorney with the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Los Angeles group that studies policymaking, told supervisors that all of the major components of the Ventura County proposal have been upheld by the courts.