Campaign reform or political ploy?

City Council majority approves full disclosure of even small contributions

TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT The Chico City Council debates the best way to impose campaign finance reform upon itself. The two-hour debate was made up of equal parts anger, yelling and teeth gnashing seasoned with brief moments of humor.

TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT The Chico City Council debates the best way to impose campaign finance reform upon itself. The two-hour debate was made up of equal parts anger, yelling and teeth gnashing seasoned with brief moments of humor.

Photo by Tom Angel

It all adds up: Councilmember Coleen Jarvis says those who gave less than $50 made up 34 percent of her cash donations in the last election. By contrast, less than 2 percent of Councilmember Larry Wahl’s donations came from donations of less than $50.

Asking politicians at any level to set boundaries on their fundraising abilities is like asking young children to show restraint around Halloween candy. In other words, it’s not very effective and can lead to temper tantrums.

The Chico City Council is no exception.

After two hours of testy debate at its June 18 meeting, the council enacted campaign finance reform on itself that for the most part is meaningless. Rather than addressing the hefty donations that raise the questions of influence-buying, the council voted 4-3 to instead keep a closer eye on the smallest donations, those of less than $50 that until now did not have to be reported.

Sparked by the large campaign donations delivered each election year by the development interests to those incumbent councilmembers and candidates seen as pro-growth, the effort to reform was taken up by the council’s Finance Committee, which after months of consideration recommended full disclosure of all donations and the filing of a final campaign statement on the last Thursday before an election.

Councilmember Coleen Jarvis protested that listing the name, address and occupation of every donor would be burdensome for the candidates—usually progressives—who receive many, smaller donations.

“This is a blatant attack on those who rely on small donations from many contributors,” she said, arguing that small donations are not meant to buy influence. It is the larger donations that give that appearance and thus the need for some sort of finance reform.

“Reform is to inform voters about where the money that is going to buy influence is coming from,” she said.

Mayor Dan Herbert, part of the council’s four-member conservative majority that has benefited from large developer donations, argued that candidates can escape full disclosure of large donations by spreading them over a lot of individual donors. He described a fundraiser in which a glass jar is placed on a table and “someone with deep pockets puts $1,000 in the jar and that precludes us from knowing” who that donor is.

Jarvis shot back that the state Fair Political Practices Commission already outlaws such a practice.

Herbert grabbed the mayor’s gavel and brought it down hard on the podium and said he was not talking about her, but about any candidate, including “those who talk out of turn.” He also suggested her defensiveness made him wonder what she was hiding.

Jarvis also noted that the city of Fresno enacted a full-disclosure law, but it was dismantled soon after the election because it was considered too burdensome.

Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, a strong proponent for campaign finance reform, sits on the Finance Committee with Councilmembers Rick Keene and Larry Wahl, who have each received thousands in developer donations in their numerous campaigns for office over the years. Nguyen-Tan’s idea of reform included a conflict-of-interest rule that would preclude councilmembers who’d received substantial donations from voting on projects connected to those donors.

But City Attorney David Frank said the state Supreme Court has ruled that such a law is a violation of free speech. The court says if you disqualify an elected official you “cut off the constitutional rights of the contributors.”

Ironically, members of the city’s Planning Commission who’ve run for council but lost cannot vote on projects involving donors who’ve given $250 or more to their failed campaigns. That ban lasts for 12 months after the donation is received.

Councilmember Maureen Kirk agreed with Jarvis that full disclosure was burdensome and said that Herbert’s deep-pockets/glass-jar scenario was nothing more than a myth.

Keene suggested the idea of impropriety on the part of councilmembers taking large donations was simply manufactured by certain members of the council pointing fingers and making such accusations. The public, he said, doesn’t really care.

However, two members of the audience addressed the council to say they were not aware of the fact councilmembers take large donations from developers until a proposed student housing project came to their neighborhood off Nord Avenue.

Mary Brownell said it was “a very big eye-opener” to learn that Houston-based Sterling Student Housing had given $1,000 each to Keene and Councilmember Steve Bertagna in their recent runs for other offices. Such a donation, she said, looked suspiciously like an attempt to purchase a “one-shot vote.”

Keene countered that Brownell’s neighbors had given him “three times that amount” in campaign contributions.

Keene asked Brownell how they should limit contributions.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m new to this. But there should be a limit because many in the community may see [large contributions] as influencing your vote.”

Nguyen-Tan, who said he had no problem with full disclosure, made a number of motions for what he called “meaningful reform.”

He said councilmembers should not vote on any issue that has a “direct financial impact on major contributors.” Doing so, he argued, sent a bad message to the constituents. “A weakness of democracy is when the people become cynical,” he said.

Herbert wanted to know why Nguyen-Tan wanted to debate something the city attorney had already said was illegal.

Nguyen-Tan said he simply disagreed with attorney Frank’s interpretation of the law and that other communities in California had conflict-of-interest laws. His first motion to establish a conflict of interest rule went down to defeat 4­3.

He then suggested the matter be put on the ballot so voters could decide if a conflict-of-interest rule was needed. That went down on a 5­2 vote, with Kirk joining Keene, Bertagna and Wahl.

Finally, Nguyen-Tan made a motion that councilmembers voluntarily disclose that they’ve received a donation of $500 or more when voting on a project that involves that donor. It too went down to defeat.

In the end the council voted on a motion by Wahl for full disclosure of all donations, adding a filing date for the Thursday before Election Day, asking the League of Women Voters to post campaign contributions on the Web and asking the city attorney to explore possible penalties for violating the full-disclosure requirement.

The new law, at least backed up with penalties, cannot go into effect until late September.