Campaign reform staggers ahead

On the Tuesday night of the big contest, the Chico City Council voted to direct staff to research state government codes on campaign finance disclosure law.

As for the bigger game, TV technicians in the chamber council sound room posted the results: “Fla. 9 Cubs 8.” And all night nary a word of the recall election was voiced.

First, with little prior discussion, the council voted 5-2 to lower the maximum campaign contribution to a council candidate from $1,000 to $500, effective immediately.

Councilmember Scott Gruendl said that in doing so the council made it very difficult for a candidate running against an opponent who can self-finance a campaign through personal loans.

“This is not good as a single piece [of legislation], and that is why I’m voting against it,” Gruendl said.

Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, the other dissenting vote, charged that the council had yet to hold a discussion on “true finance reform.” At an earlier meeting she voiced concern that lowering the maximum donation could be a violation of free speech.

Then came the stickier issue of campaign reform: a motion by Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan to require that councilmembers disclose campaign contributions of $250 or more from members of the public, or agents acting on their behalf, who have business before the council. He said the ordinance could be based on state codes covering planning commissioners who run for elected office. Those commissioners must excuse themselves from voting on projects affecting campaign donors who’ve given $250 or more to the commissioner.

Councilmember Dan Herbert cautioned that, “while the logic behind this is fine, what if a silent or limited partner of a project proponent who’s given $250 or more comes before the council? How would we know?” he asked.

He suggested a political opponent could use the ordinance to entrap a councilmember.

Nguyen-Tan said existing state codes cover such issues.

Herbert was not convinced, pointing out that last year the council voted to require council candidates to list all contributions from $1 up on their financial-disclosure statements.

“Why are we doing this?” he asked. “We’ve accomplished everything we’ve wanted to accomplish.”

Jarvis took exception to Herbert’s statement and said the council had done little in the way of real campaign finance reform.

Driving the move for disclosure are the hefty contributions made by the local development industry to candidates seen as in favor of growth and development. Those candidates tend to be more politically conservative and include the current conservative council minority, Herbert, Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna.

Development issues that typically come before the council include raising or lowering development impact fees and appeals of decisions made by the Planning Commission.

Bertagna argued that the disclosure law would affect only yes votes and wondered how to address those campaign contributors who are after a no vote.

Herbert asked, what if the person with business before the council was the director of a nonprofit and a member of that entity’s board of directors and had given a donation exceeding the limit?

Nguyen-Tan said state code covers lobbyists, and Jarvis argued that nonprofits, by their very nature, have no financial gain in matters before the council.

When the matter was opened to public comment, environmental activist Kelly Meagher, a regular contributor to candidates he sees as pro-environment and pro-slow-growth, told Herbert, “We’re talking about something that ain’t your idea, pal, and you don’t like it.”

Meagher argued that it is odd that council candidates have to raise so much money to win an election for a job that pays $60 per month.

“Some of us think some of you take money from special interests,” he said. “Of course that is only a perception.”

Jarvis suggested the council hold future discussions on limiting the amount a candidate in a race for council can spend, but Herbert countered that doing so will only fuel the number and activities of political-action committees—organizations that independently raise money to support or oppose a candidates.

“My goodness,” said an exasperated Herbert. “We’re not getting bought off.”

Wahl called the disclosure requirement “anti-business.”

“You’re cutting down the number of people willing to run for office,” he said.

The council voted 4-3, with Wahl, Herbert and Bertagna in the minority, to direct staff to come back with a draft proposal that reflects existing state codes covering both financial and lobbying influence disclosures.