Elections for sale

Mayor’s proposal to raise campaign contribution limits for City Council draws public ire

Mayor Sean Morgan says he believes that grassroots campaigns don’t work anymore.

Mayor Sean Morgan says he believes that grassroots campaigns don’t work anymore.


Robert Tinkler, a U.S. history professor at Chico State, considers himself an engaged citizen, but he had never attended a meeting of the Chico City Council until Tuesday (June 20).

“I realize now, I’ve really been missing out,” he told the panel.

Indeed, the political theater had been especially dramatic to that point. During a discussion on homelessness, for instance, activist Patrick Newman admonished the council’s enforcement-only approach to the crisis, declaring, “What we need from the council is a new council.” Councilman Andrew Coolidge interrupted to denounce Newman’s “personal attacks,” then Mayor Sean Morgan cut off the speaker’s microphone when he kept talking past the three-minute time limit.

But that was just the beginning of an evening-long battle for Morgan, who brought forward a proposal to increase local campaign contribution limits. The issue struck a nerve in the community; people filled the chambers, and some held signs with slogans such as, “City Council is not for sale.”

Morgan explained where he was coming from: In 1982, Chico voters approved a contribution limit of $1,000, but in 2004 the council voted to reduce that to $500—an “arbitrary” figure, he said.

“Like everything else, the cost of campaigning has gone up,” he said. “It’s costing more to get the message out.” Morgan did not immediately specify how high he’d like to raise the contribution limit, however.

The left side of the dais was unsupportive. Councilman Randall Stone argued that the cost of campaigning has gone down, given the powerful reach of social media and new technologies. And Councilwoman Ann Schwab was hesitant to make a decision that potentially could benefit the council members up for re-election next year.

“What about putting it on the ballot and letting the people decide?” she asked.

People were skeptical, to say the least. In fact, all 29 speakers opposed Morgan’s proposal when the floor was open for public comment. Many mentioned that, leading up to his re-election in November, Morgan’s campaign set a record by raising $64,078—not to mention the $31,750 raised by a political action committee supporting him. Setting the bar even higher would put running for office out of reach for regular citizens, some said. Others warned of opening the door for corruption, the formation of a local oligarchy and elections marred by increasingly nasty partisanship.

“You’ll make this an uglier, meaner, worse place,” said Jeremy Markley.

Another common sentiment was that voters across the political spectrum are fed up with the influence of deep-pocketed interest groups.

“I mean, are you kidding me? We have the most expensive council election in our city’s history, and you’re all here—you all ran successful campaigns,” said Josh Indar. “Where’s the justification for this? … Nobody is going to tell you, ‘Hey, I think the problem with American politics is there’s not enough money in it.’”

“This is literally the most unpopular thing the council could do,” echoed Matt Sutter.

Morgan was unmoved by the outpouring of opposition. So was Councilman Mark Sorensen, who said lowering the contribution limits in 2004 diverted more money to political action committees (PACs) that file with the county rather than the city, making it more difficult to parse out where donations come from. (Local PACs are required to submit finance reports to either jursidiction, depending on which race they spend the majority of their funds on.) Coolidge also was supportive of raising the limits, adding that it’s difficult to mount a successful campaign without accepting money from “dark money PACs.”

Morgan made a motion to raise campaign contribution limits back to $1,000, which drew a second from Sorensen.

With their backs against the wall, the progressives pulled a series of procedural maneuvers that left many in attendance—and some members of the council as well—perplexed over what, exactly, was going on.

Before City Clerk Debbie Presson called the roll on Morgan’s motion, Stone made a substitute motion to put the issue on the ballot in 2018, which drew a second from Schwab. His motion passed 4-3, with Coolidge, Morgan and Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer voting in opposition.

With Morgan’s original motion still on the floor, Councilman Karl Ory made another sub-motion for the “proposal not to take effect until 2020.” That passed unanimously, but confusion ensued. Did Ory mean that the voters’ decision in 2018 wouldn’t take effect until 2020? Could the council still make a decision that would take effect immediately—before voters had a say in the matter?

The council looked to City Attorney Vince Ewing, who simply said, “It’s important to vote on motions you understand.”

Stone, clearly frustrated, made a motion to “kill the whole thing.” That died without a second. Eventually, Schwab made another sub-motion to clarify that any action by the council regarding campaign contribution limits would not take effect until 2020. That passed unanimously.

Morgan apparently knew he was beat. “And with that,” he said, “I withdraw my original motion.” The audience erupted into applause.

In summary: In November 2018, voters will decide whether to raise campaign contribution limits to $1,000. If that measure is approved, it will take effect in 2020.