Councilmember revises campaign reform

Chico City Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan’s push for campaign contribution reform will not go before the voters next fall. At the last City Council meeting, the council made a motion of intent to lower the maximum individual contribution from $1,000 to $500 and agreed to discuss and vote on campaign conflict-of-interest matters at its Oct. 7 meeting.

Nguyen-Tan had said he wanted councilmembers who received campaign contributions of $500 or more to be required to excuse themselves from voting on matters brought before them by the giver of the contribution.

Nguyen-Tan then placed the ceiling at $250 because a similar limit is already in effect for members of the city Planning Commission. Commissioners who, while running unsuccessful council campaigns, received campaign contributions of $250 or higher are not allowed to vote on matters brought before the commission by those who donated the money.

Now Nguyen-Tan says he would ask only that councilmembers disclose the fact they’ve received a contribution of $250 or more from a party that has a vested interest in a matter before the council.

In a memo to the council, Nguyen-Tan says councilmembers should verbally reveal that information “immediately prior to council deliberation in a proceeding that has a direct financial impact on the contributing party who gave $250 or more to the councilor’s campaign. This disclosure would only apply in proceedings where council discretion is necessary, such as permits, entitlements, contracts, and other discretionary actions that are not administrated at the staff level or equally affect the general public at large.”

Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis and Scott Gruendl voted against lowering the maximum contribution.

This week Jarvis, who said she supports the $250 disclosure requirement, said she voted no on lowering the maximum donation for a couple of reasons. The issue, she said, was placed on the council’s meeting agenda as a matter of campaign reform related to possible conflicts of interest. There was no discussion about or public input on lowering contribution ceilings.

“And to lower the amount to $500, I think, gets close to violating the First Amendment free-speech rights,” she said. “It’s the conflict of interest, not the maximum contribution, I’m concerned with.”

In his memo, Nguyen-Tan says that if a verbal-disclosure requirement is not approved, the maximum donation should be lowered to $250.

“The original conflict-of-interest proposal’s goals were to highlight and limit the role of significant contributions and their perceived influence in public policy,” Nguyen-Tan wrote. “I believe lowering the contribution limit, while also requiring verbal campaign contribution disclosure, helps meet those goals.”

Last year council candidate Ross Bradford, who lost the election despite outspending the other candidates, received his biggest contributions of $1,000 from Agasy Inc. (builder Tony Symmes), $1,000 from Ritchie Homes, $1,000 from a company called Maxwell Partners and another $1,000 from farmer James Paiva.

Councilmember Scott Gruendl, who raised and spent the second-largest amount of money, received contributions of $750 from local attorney Andrew Holcombe and $500 from environmentalist Kelly Meagher. Councilmember Dan Herbert got a $1,000 contribution from Webb Homes, $600 from Dan Hunt, president of Mid Valley Title, and another $600 from Mid Valley Title itself. Herbert also got $500 from Carolyn Dauterman, owner of Thomas Welding & Machine, $500 from Rick Keene for Assembly and $400 from property manager Lewis Everett $400. In addition, Gerald Hardesty, plastering contractor, gave $400, and developer James Ledgerwood gave $350.

Mayor Maureen Kirk received $500 from Meagher and another $250 from banker and Planning Commissioner Jolene Francis. The rest of her donations all came in contributions of $100 or less.

An independent expenditure committee (also known as a PAC) called Clear Choice raised $22,533 to support the campaigns of Herbert and Bradford. The committee received donations from Land’s End Real Estate ($2,000), Guillon Industrial Properties ($1,000), Hardesty and Sons ($1,000), Agasy Inc. ($1,000) and Fogarty Investments ($700). Thomas Fogarty is a developer who hopes to develop land near the old Humboldt Road Burn Dump.

"Unfortunately, all my research concludes that very little can be done about PACs," Nguyen-Tan said. "We have much more authority over candidates. Will lower contribution limits push more money into PACs? I don’t think so, because if someone wants to push his or her agenda, that person will do so regardless of contribution limits to candidates."