A more modest campaign reform

While we admire—and formerly endorsed—Chico City Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan’s efforts at campaign finance reform, the resulting political process has so warped the original intent that the matter should be tabled for the time being.

For years City Council election campaigns have been dominated by developer and real-estate-interest dollars. There is good reason for that. The three largest industries in Chico are Enloe Medical Center, Chico State University and the housing industry. Political matters affecting the first two are determined at the state and federal level, and that is where the lobbying is done. Issues concerning the building industry are made locally, which accounts for the building industry’s keen interest in seeing who is elected locally.

In years past, the slow- and no-growthers and the candidates they supported have complained that development money tilts the playing field and gives the impression that the building contractors are buying favors from the city. Those on the receiving end of developers’ donations point out that they are simply the candidates more in line with the political philosophies of their benefactors.

Nguyen-Tan’s original idea was to make councilmembers who received a donation of $500 or more excuse themselves from any vote affecting the party or agent of the party that made the donation.

But when the proposal was first introduced at a council meeting in September, the council minority, those who have received significant developers’ donations, hijacked the issue and changed it to lower the maximum contribution allowed from $1,000 to $500.

Undeterred, Nguyen-Tan altered his proposal to require that councilmembers simply disclose the fact that they’ve received a $250 donation from a person with business before the council.

The conservative minority pointed out that such information is already available to the public via candidate disclosure statements kept on file with the city. That is true. But this paper has written extensively linking developer donations to certain councilmembers and their tendencies to vote in favor of the building industry, and it doesn’t seem to register with average citizens—until, that is, a project threatens their neighborhood.

Last year a Texas-based company looking to build student apartments on Nord Avenue gave $1,000 donations each to two councilmembers running for other political seats. When a group of citizens fighting the construction of the apartments learned of this practice, they were so alarmed they called the News & Review to alert us. Could we believe something like this was happening here in Chico? Well, yes we could.

With all this in mind, we urge voters to become and stay vigilant about the impact of money on local campaigns. We also note that, if councilmembers like Nguyen-Tan believe campaign contributions might influence a vote, they can point out before the vote is taken that one or more fellow councilmembers have taken money from the principal party in the business at hand. That should be enough to accomplish his goal of full disclosure.