Political reform?

This week I received a copy of one page of the draft for the Oct. 16 City Council agenda. The page featured the Finance Committee report as it would be presented to the council for consideration. What caught my eye—mainly because the person who sent it to me underlined it and drew an asterisk next to it—was the committee’s recommendation that “the Chico Municipal Code be amended to require full campaign disclosure reporting down to $1.00, to be filed weekly with the City Clerk.” I called Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan and asked him what that meant. I called him because he’s the most vocal proponent of changes in the city’s campaign disclosure laws. Nguyen-Tan has said he’s concerned about real or perceived possible conflicts of interest when a candidate takes a large contribution from someone who could have a vested interest in a council decision—the most obvious examples being local developers who regularly make big donations and whose projects then often come before council.

Nguyen-Tan said the requirement is only part of a package of suggestions the committee has developed to present to the full council for consideration. And it turns out this idea to record every contribution right down to a dollar—currently the minimum threshold is $50—comes from conservative Councilmember Rick Keene, who is also on the committee, as is Councilmember Larry Wahl. Conventional wisdom holds that the burden for such extensive reporting would fall on progressives, who historically gather more individual campaign contributions in smaller dollar increments than the conservatives do. More specifically, states Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, Keene believes a good deal of the progressive candidates’ contributions come through as small cash donations distributed by environmental activist Kelly Meagher. Nguyen-Tan agreed: “When Rick’s in these [Finance Committee] meetings, he thinks of examples to hold up for new disclosure laws, and it’s always the same. He thinks Kelly Meagher is huddled in some corner at a fund raiser with thousands in cash in the form of five-dollar bills, and he’s handing those out.” Those who receive the cash then contribute, so the theory goes, to the progressives’ candidate of choice—often in amounts under $50. Thus the true source of the money does not get reported. “That’s really out of touch with reality,” Nguyen-Tan said. “Unless that is what is going on at Rick’s fund raisers.”

“My concern is that councilmembers like Keene think that having candidates fully disclose every dollar is the only local campaign finance reform that will strengthen the public’s trust in elected officials,” Nguyen-Tan explained. “Ask any average citizen their opinion about politics, whether it be local or national, and I doubt they are concerned about the undue influence of many $5 contributors. It’s the undue influence, or perceived influence, of big-time contributors to politics, especially when those big contributors have a direct financial stake in the decisions that elected officials make. This is part of what makes average citizens cynical about government.” To prove I’m not cynical, I told Nguyen-Tan I would gladly contribute 99 cents (to stay off the radar and avoid accusations of favoring one candidate over another) to his re-election campaign. I’m wondering what kind of influence this will buy.

Add another name to the so far short list of those running for the 3rd District Assembly seat that Sam Aanested will vacate in order to run for state Senate next year. Local political operative Stuart King says he’s taken out candidate papers and intends to run. Chico City Councilmember Keene was the first to announce. King, a Democrat and ex-husband of former Chico City Councilmember Kimberly King, has worked as a painter for Chico State University plant operations for the last 20 years, served on city commissions and has worked behind the scenes for progressive candidates for many years. In 1998 King toyed with the idea of running against the late Assemblyman Bernie Richter. “Stuart King would make a formidable opponent in any race,” Richter said at the time. Former Councilmember David Guzzetti speaks highly of King. "He’s done a lot of work for some of the progressive campaigns I’ve been involved in," he said. "He’s done a lot of the hard work—calling the precinct lists, targeting the mailers. But for any Democrat to win this race, it’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of traveling."