The city council Tuesday night approved two contentious campaign finance ordinances that, taken together, limit the influence of people and businesses that contribute to a candidate or sitting councilmember. These ordinances will likely reshape the way candidates approach fundraising in this year’s election.
After two previous meetings this month that ended with arguments, Tuesday’s meeting started off amicably with two well-received commendations. The first was for Nutiva—a health food business moving to Richmond—and the second was for long-standing Richmond citizen Pauline Henderson for her 90th birthday. Her brief speech to the audience included this takeaway on how to have a long life: “Just keep on living. You’ll make it.”
But tension returned as the council discussed the next two agenda items, which dealt with campaign finance reform.
The council considered becoming the first city in California to strictly regulate campaign contributions over $250. The proposed ordinance says that a councilmember who accepts a contribution over $250 is disqualified from voting on any item that comes before the council over the next year that involves a license, permit, contract or other entitlement for use by the business or individual who contributed to the councilmember. The disqualification also applies if the person, or company, that contributed actively supports or opposes a particular decision in an entitlement issue.
If the councilmember wants to vote on the item, he or she must return the portion of the donation that exceeds $250 to the contributor within 30 days of learning about the pending issue. Under this ordinance, council members would also be forbidden from accepting, or soliciting contributions over $250 from an interested company or individual while a proceeding is pending before the council, and for three months following the council’s decision.
Penalties for breaking this law are steep. Any person, either citizen or councilmember, who knowingly violates it can receive up to a $5,000 fine for each violation and up to six months in jail.
During Tuesday’s meeting, there were many questions from the council about the specifics of the law. Former City Attorney Randy Riddle helped adapt the ordinance from California Government Code Section 84308 and was on hand to explain it. The complication, he said, is that the state’s code applies to appointed—not elected—officials. “We struggled to make this work for elected officials when state law is not applicable to elected officials,” Riddle said.
Vice-Mayor Jim Rogers took issue with the ordinance applying too broadly. “It’s a very complicated issue here. One effect is to try to knock out communication from people who are lobbying people to get a certain result. This extends to two areas: campaign races and initiatives. Initiatives are troubling,” he said. Rogers then offered a “friendly amendment” to the ordinance asking that it not apply to councilmembers’ ballot expenditure committees because, he said that he worried it would limit councilmembers’ abilities to “fight back against big corporations.”
After a long debate amongst the council, Councilmember Corky Booze offered a substitute motion. Booze proposed raising the limit from $250 to $2,000 and dropping the penalty against any citizens who violate it.
The motion failed with Booze and Councilmember Nat Bates as its lone supporters. The original motion, with Rogers’ amendment, passed 5-2 with Bates and Booze opposed. Before taking effect, the ordinance will be subject to a second read at a future meeting.
“It makes us think twice about who we’re accepting money from,” said Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond resident and city council hopeful, during the public comment session.
Mike Ali, another city council candidate, felt differently. “The real purpose is to make sure that those who seek a voice are brushed aside and those who are in power remain in power. The city council has no authority to do this without the city [residents] votes,” said Ali.
The other campaign ordinance considered on Tuesday night proposed capping the amount that a candidate can raise, while still receiving matching funds from the city, to $40,000. A candidate who raises over $40,000 would be disqualified from receiving the $25,000 in public matching funds that Richmond offers. That would make the maximum amount a candidate could spend $65,000.
Supporters of the measure said they think it will “level” the playing field in local elections. “I support it. I think we would very much like to differentiate elections from auctions,” said Councilmember Jeff Ritterman. “I spent $32K when I ran, so it’s possible to run a shoe-string campaign and get elected.”
Rogers said that he appreciates the desire to take money out of politics, but thinks the limit is an unreasonable expectation that will end up crippling a candidate’s ability to fight big businesses. “Problem is, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where the Supreme Court of the United States says it’s okay to take money. When you limit it to $65,000, then you run the risk of candidates getting knocked out because they can’t go up against Chevron or large organizations,” he said.
Bates took issue with the idea of taxpayers subsidizing campaigns through matching funds. “It isn’t fair. It favors the incumbents,” he said.
The measure passed 4-3 with Rogers, Bates and Booze opposed.
In other city business, the council passed an ordinance requiring the city to manage pests using environmentally sensitive principles, stated their opposition to Proposition 32, the “Special Exemptions Act” on the statewide ballot in November which would forbid unions from collecting dues to use for political lobbying, and passed an ordinance to repeal the municipal code that makes it illegal for people to solicit work while standing on city sidewalks.
The repeal of the ordinance was passed unanimously and, according to the city attorney, will mainly affect day laborers. The ordinance the city already has on the books is illegal due to recent court rulings at the state and national level, the city attorney said.
The meeting closed with expressions of sadness as Mayor Gayle McLaughlin recognized the recent passing of Kimberly Sandoval-Taylor, a city employee in the human resources department.