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Amendments to campaign disclosure law pass through first stage

on September 14, 2012

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.

1 Comment

  1. Don Gosney on September 16, 2012 at 1:05 am

    For a group that likes to pride itself on transparency, the way this meeting was held was a travesty to the concept. With virtually no public notice the meeting was held on an off day at a time when working men and women would have to take off from work to partake of the democratic process.

    If this wasn’t en effort to shove something down the throats of the people without even letting them know what was being done to them, then what was it?

    Of course, the issue was a done deal even before the Council officially met to hear from the public or to cast their votes. I’m surprised they even went through the motions of hosting a meeting. Why didn’t they just call someone from the Richmond Confidential and spoon feed them a story about what they had decided to do. They could have saved the City Staff the trouble of setting up the meeting.

    Just how can these people say they are representing the will of the people when they don’t bother to consult with the people. When they fail to notice the meetings with enough time for the public to study the materials and they don’t notice it in such a manner that the public even knows what’s being proposed, how can they expect to know what the public thinks about the issue.

    And if any member of this Council wants us to believe that this isn’t about this election or the soda tax, then why are we spending gazillions of dollars on attorneys and hosting special called Council meetings to get it enacted right away? Do the members of the Council think that we’re stupid? Do they feel that they’re intellectually and morally superior to the rest of us? If not, then why do they treat us so often as if they think we’re inferior to them and are incapable of thinking for ourselves?

    By the way, when the Council was discussing ways to streamline their meetings so they wouldn’t last until the wee hours of the morning, this was one of the concepts championed by at least one member of the Council. The idea was that if the Council were to conduct most of their business at a time when the public could not attend then they wouldn’t have to waste time with allowing members of the public to rise and speak. As one member of the Council spoke as he chastised those that disagreed with him, he publicly questioned why we were wasting their time by speaking in opposition to what they felt was best for us–especially considering that they had the votes before the meeting even started.

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