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Orange County

Laguna Beach May Triple Donor Limit

A vote on campaign contributions is sparked by the lack of a limit on giving to committees that are independent of candidates.

October 18, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Laguna Beach City Council members will vote Tuesday on tripling the city's campaign contribution limit from $250 to $750, the first increase since the city ordinance was adopted in 1994.

Laguna Beach is one of 13 Orange County cities that, along with the county government, limits contributions by individuals to local political campaigns.

The boost is needed so candidates can compete with opposition by committees that are independent of candidates and have no spending limits, argued Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman, who faces reelection next year, along with Councilman Wayne Baglin.

An appeals court last year overturned an ordinance in Irvine -- similar to those in Laguna Beach and two other cities -- that restricted contributions to such independent committees. A judge ruled that such a law illegally restricted free speech because it had the effect of limiting expenditures.

Being able to raise more money to respond to literature from independent committees -- increasingly a fixture of local races -- is "only fair," Kinsman said. "To me, it's not the amount that's important, it's [having] a level playing field."

Twenty-one Orange County cities have no campaign contribution limits. Where limits exist, they range from $250 to $1,000. Most were adopted by city councils and can be changed by council vote.

Donations to campaigns for county government seats are limited to $1,400 for each four-year election cycle. The amount can be adjusted for inflation but cannot otherwise be changed without voter approval.

Statewide, about 75 cities and counties limit contributions. The median is about $250, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies, a nonpartisan research group in Los Angeles.

The Laguna Beach proposal is "really an incredible jump" for such a small city, he said. Los Angeles, for example, limits contributions to City Council candidates to $500, double that for a mayor's race.

The Laguna Beach proposal irks Mayor Toni Iseman, who said such a large increase is unnecessary. One colleague suggested that the new limit should be as high as $1,500 when the issue was raised two weeks ago.

Campaign reformer Shirley Grindle of Orange, who co-wrote the county's law and several city ordinances, said a tripling of Laguna's limit defies the wishes of voters, who generally approve measures designed to reduce the influence of money in politics.

In 2000, for example, California voters agreed to place a limit of $20,000 for contributions to statewide candidates.

The best way to ensure that local limits aren't later changed by the elected officials bound by them is to put the ordinances on the ballot, she said, where passage means they can't later be changed without voter approval.

The people most affected by campaign limits are local businesses that are solicited for the contributions, she added. That increases the cost of doing business in town.

"These are the guys who are going to get tapped for the money," she said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Drawing the line

Laguna Beach is one of 13 cities -- in addition to the county -- that place limits on campaign contributions. On Tuesday, the City Council will consider tripling the contribution limit to $750. The council also will vote on whether to buy software allowing contribution data to be posted on the city's Web site.

*--* Limits Orange County $1,400 Anaheim $1,000 Dana Point $510 Fountain Valley $500 Huntington Beach $300 Irvine $360 Laguna Beach $250 Laguna Niguel $350 Laguna Woods $250 Newport Beach $500 Orange $500 San Juan Capistrano $250 Santa Ana $1,000 Seal Beach $250 Other limits Los Angeles City $500 San Diego (council) $500 San Diego (mayor) $1,000 Ventura County $600

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Source: City municipal codes

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