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L.A. council rejects bid to shorten campaign fundraising season

The Ethics Commission proposal was designed to shift power from incumbents and curb spending in city races. The move draws complaints from reform advocates.

August 23, 2012|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • The Los Angeles City Council has been calling for a crackdown on mobile billboards since at least the 1980s. Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles City Council has been calling for a crackdown on mobile billboards… (Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles lawmakers on Wednesday rejected an Ethics Commission proposal to shorten the campaign fundraising season, which had been intended to shift power away from incumbents and limit the amount of spending in city political races.

The proposal, part of a broader overhaul of campaign finance rules recommended by the commission, would have reduced the window in which candidates could raise money from 24 months to 18 months in citywide contests and from 18 months to 12 months in City Council races.

The council voted to override the recommendation, instead instructing city lawyers to keep current pre-election fundraising windows in place as they draw up a new ordinance. The council also instructed the lawyers to extend post-election fundraising by three months.

Councilman Tom LaBonge, who sits on a committee that urged rejection of the commission's proposal, said that if fundraising periods were reduced, "candidates would not have the time to get the support they need to get their message out."

But the move drew complaints from reform advocates.

"We think that's a mistake," said Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign. He said changing the law would have leveled the playing field for candidates not already in office. And he said it would have allowed current office-holders to "focus on work that is not their fundraising."

The council backed many of the Ethics Commission's other proposals, including a new rule that would allow donors to give to campaigns via text message and a measure to reduce the role city commissioners and department heads are allowed to play in campaigns.

But the council voted to change other commission proposals, including a recommendation to provide more generous matching funds to candidates.

The commission recommended that in both primary and general elections, four public dollars — up from one — be available as a match for every dollar a candidate takes in from qualified donors.

The council instructed city lawyers to limit the match to two public dollars for each dollar donated during primary campaigns. A four-to-one match could strain city resources, council members said. Councilman Jose Huizar asked city staff to report on the possibility of raising the rate to four-to-one in all elections in 2015, when the city's matching funds account may be replenished.

The council moved forward with incentives to collect more campaign money from inside, rather than outside, Los Angeles.

They asked that the ordinance restrict public matching funds to donations raised in the city. And candidates would only be eligible for the city money if they collected donations from at least 200 people who lived in the district they hoped to represent.

Robin Gilbert, an organizer with the California Clean Money Campaign, cheered that move. "This is a way to make the small donor feel like they have a say in elections and campaigns," she said. "People think that their little donations don't help."

A recent study commissioned by her group found that only 15% of campaign funds raised in recent City Council elections came from individuals in the candidate's district. More than 40% of the donations came from outside Los Angeles, according to the study.

The council is expected to vote on the completed ordinance this fall.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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