Nearly a week after a judge criticized its campaign disclosure law, City Council considered making amendments Thursday to dial down what Councilmember Jim Rogers called the law’s aggressiveness.
“I guess you could look at [the original ordinance] as a Cadillac,” Rogers said. “And this one here, I guess you could look at it as a Ford.”
The city’s current campaign law requires a committee that receives more than one-third of its money from contributors outside of Richmond to write on the front page of its mass mailings “major funding from large out-of-city contributors.” The proposed revisions would remove that requirement, take out criminal penalties for violators, and clarify the intended targets of the law.
“We’re not appealing—we’re changing our ordinance,” Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said. “This is protective for the city.”
The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes challenged the ordinance’s applicability and constitutionality in a lawsuit filed against the city in late August.
In federal court last week, federal Judge Charles R. Breyer called the current ordinance ambiguous and said it infringed on the committee’s right to free speech.
In the two-week restraining order he granted to the CCABT, Breyer wrote that the city’s law “has a chilling effect on the Plaintiffs’ exercise of rights protected by the First Amendment.”
The current ordinance includes criminal penalties for violators of the law, which Breyer said he didn’t understand due to the law’s ambiguous language.
The council’s proposed changes removed the criminal punishment section from the ordinance, although civil penalties would remain.
The changes also clarify the law’s intended targets by removing the words “independent expenditure committees.” Independent expenditures are campaign spending by committees that have not coordinated with the candidate the committee is opposing or advocating.
Breyer said since the CCABT opposes a measure—not a candidate— the committee couldn’t be making independent expenditures.
A sample mailing from CCABT does state that it’s funded by the American Beverage Association, in compliance with state laws.
During the first six months of this year, the CCABT received $150,000 from the ABA, whose members include Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper.
The revised ordinance would require committees to list their major funders separated from other text by at least a half-inch.
“We think [the revised ordinance] is greatly improved and will be ready to comply when it takes effect,” said Chuck Finnie, CCABT spokesperson.
The council must go through at least two readings of the amendments in order to change the law. If the council passes the amendments on the second reading next week, the amendments wouldn’t go into effect until October 18.
Councilmembers Corky Booze and Nat Bates dissented in this round of voting. Booze said the city shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars for attorneys defending the city against the lawsuit.
“I don’t want to spend another penny for a feel-good ordinance,” he said. “It is wrong.”
Councilmember Tom Butt said the ordinance wasn’t about the election or the soda tax.
“It’s about trying to make a campaign as transparent as possible,” Councilmember Tom Butt said. “It’s the basis of democracy.”
Whether a Cadillac or Ford, Rogers said the revised ordinance will still do the job, which is “when people get mail, it’s easy to understand who’s paying for it.”
The council is scheduled to vote on the second reading of the amendments on Tuesday at its regular meeting.