The common method of electing representatives across our country requires the use of private money to fund the campaigns of our public officials. The use of private funds to elect our public representatives creates an inherent conflict of interest between private donors (typically those with disposable wealth) and the community interest. Does the CEO of a company taking home 300 times the wages of his/her factory workers worry about the same issues as his/her employees? The need for money to run a campaign creates not only a prejudice of the candidates to appeal to a very, very narrow slice of wealthy donors, but a gratitude for those donors who support them. Study after study shows us that legislative outcomes – the rules that we are governed by – are determined by money and not majoritarian democracy. And the more money is involved in the process, be it the cost of the campaign or a compensating salary, the greater the threat of corruption by gratitude. It is a natural response for humans to feel gratitude when someone helps us. That gratitude is as subconscious and motivating in a similar way as we commonly use sex in selling products.
Diffusing and de-personalizing the source of campaign funds from a few wealthy individuals to the community at large allows the elections and the subsequent legislation of those elected officials to be about the best ideas for the community rather than a prejudice of gratitude that leans toward the interests of a few wealthy donors. Every city council member recognizes that conflict of interest at county, state, and federal level.
I understand the need for campaign finance reform in the county and state level, but I have yet to hear a legitimate argument for it in our City.
It is important to recognize the full responsibilities and value of the city council as a representative body. If city council were only to decide about which street gets pothole repair we wouldn’t need leaders – just managers. Our elected city council are our first line and most accessible body of government. As such, city council represents our present community interests to other cities, the county, the state, and to some extent the federal government on issues that concern us. We even have a sister city across the globe. We recognize that even as a small community that we have a part to play in the larger picture. That’s why, for example, we have a climate action plan in a city that, by itself, has no life threatening pollution. How will SLO behave now that our federal government has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Treaty? Sometimes the city must play a contributing role. That’s why council has asked staff to review our options to endorse the universal health bill SB562. Why resolutions are passed such as 10395 (2012 Series) A Resolution Of The City Of San Luis Obispo Supporting A Constitutional Amendment Restricting Corporate Spending In The Electoral Process. The responsibility of our representative council is to assert our community interests not merely within our borders but beyond to the county, state and federal level as well. Social and political change begins at the local level partly because the system at the higher levels is out of reach for most activism. Campaign finance reform is no different.
Consider some conflicts we’ve had at the local level. Out of town developers applying pressure to our local government to push building projects like the Dalidio shopping center, or the 900 new homes above Pismo Beach where the city council was accused of being in collusion with the developer. The outrage over the preferential treatment given the Santa Margarita Ranch by outgoing Supervisors Lenthall, Achadjian, Ovitt in 2008 to push through a housing project before their terms expired. In January the board of Supervisors battled over whether or not Lynn Compton was acting on behalf of developers regarding a Sheriff’s substation.
Assuming for the moment that ethics are not in question in any of those cited examples, SCOTUS recognizes that “the appearance of corruption is equal to corruption itself because the assumption of corruption undermines the faith and trust constituents must place in their government and elected officials.” Public financing is a protection for our elected representatives from the appearance of corruption which is extremely important to insure civic participation and faith in our governance.
Clearly, city residents ARE affected by money in politics. Our community does not answer solely to the governance of our city council. We are also affected by the laws created by the county, state, and federal legislatures. For example, at the federal level alone, Mainstreet Association estimates that legislation favoring large corporations who can afford lobbying, costs Mom and Pop small businesses $2200 a year. Please see this recent article by Bill Moyers.
In my experience, having lobbied at all levels of government, not one of the representatives that I’ve spoken with will admit to being influenced by donations despite all of the evidence to the contrary. I believe it is our City Council’s obligation to stand up for our community and demand change of our corrupted democracy. Speaking out as a community of citizens is an extremely important step in correcting this problem within, and beyond, our city limits. Small communities like ours are petri dishes for new ideas in our democracy. One of the most important means of asserting our interest in removing money in politics is to normalize publicly funded elections.
And, as a civil rights matter, the steep cost of campaigns dissuades or even prevents individuals from lower socio-economic circles from running for office. In SLO, approximately 40 families, or about 150 people, routinely finance nearly all of our council candidates each election. The hurdle of raising money for those in less advantaged socio-economic levels can dissuade some from participating in our governance. This has an enormous long term ripple effect because it is normal for those who attain office to be the candidates who run for future higher office. This personal momentum by successful politician fundraisers homogenizes our political discourse. Issue empathies reflect the socio-economic priorities and ideas of donors rather than the average community member which are then carried into higher office. Enshrining money as the gateway to being part of our governance propagates the strategy that money is more important than ideas. In my opinion, former city councilman Dan Carpenter, in an effort to appease his donor base to achieve higher office as a county supervisor, reversed his second vote to move our ordinance forward just a week after stating publicly in council that he was voting for public financing because, he “…was elected to lead”. His reversal is a good example of placing his campaign’s need for money above his stated duty for the office he then occupied. Corruption happens in SLO and SLO must be the change in the system that it advocates of others. SLO cannot pretend to operate above the system.
By showing that public financing works, we normalize the behavior for the county, state and federal government to follow our lead.
Saying that CFR is comparable to our Climate Action Plan is an oversimplification. Climate Action does more than clear up air pollution in our direct area. Banning smoking, banning plastic bags, banning single use plastic water bottles, are city issues. How does changing SLO’s election system address blatant issues at the county, state, and federal level?
The environmental issues such as “Banning smoking, banning plastic bags, banning single use plastic water bottles” has it’s parallel in our existing election laws: CFR has contribution limits, disclosure forms, independent expenditure rules, etc., all to keep the political environment clean and prevent toxicity. The city recognizes that even our relatively healthy community is emitting green house gases and wants to do what we can as part of the “whole”. That is exactly the same approach and sensitivity that should be applied to CFR – both efforts recognize our part in the bigger scheme of things. Children here in the city of SLO are not having asthma problems as a result of our air pollution such as those who are living next to busy highways in big cities like L.A. for example. Likewise, we do not suffer the same level of big money in politics from our local actions. City Council understands and has taken action regarding our participation in the consequences of climate action that go beyond our city limits. That is why we spend city tax money to employ a full time employee to work at becoming carbon neutral at a cost of about $180K a year, on buying new fleet vehicles, and spending staff time writing new rules, to address an issue that is not a “city problem.”
It is oxymoronic to recognize the necessity of immediate action regarding the climate while being indifferent to money in politics. Sen. James Inhofe (R), Oklahoma, is the leader of the Senate committee on the environment. He wrote the book, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” One of the reasons Sen. Inhofe remains in office at the age of 82 is because his biggest contributors are the fossil fuel industry. Money in politics is the single biggest impediment to strong environmental solutions and tax policy. If you are concerned with the global perspective on climate change and act upon that as a small town in a rural community where people choose bikes and electric vehicles and solar panels, then the idea that you have a role to play beyond our city limits in CFR is a given. Establishing a clean political climate is our obligation.
You cannot say that we have the same level of campaign financing issues that the County does. Why not take a version of the ordinance to the county or work to get a different Board of Supervisors elected?
It’s true that the county has very little in the way of campaign funding rules. Unfortunately, until just this past fall of 2016 there was a law preventing counties from establishing publicly funded campaigns. That rule was recently repealed. We have been speaking and lobbying the supervisors on this issue for years and they all agree that something needs to be done. County Board of Supervisors campaigns are now running from 10 to 20 times more costly than a SLO City Council race. More money in the race makes the effort to pass meaningful reform about 10 to 20 times more difficult. The supporting members of CFR on the board all say the same thing: “Get it done in the city of SLO first.” SLO city council members are not making a living off of their salaries, nor do they have high campaign costs. This is both why they haven’t had the same levels of corruption, and more importantly in this case, why SLO city council, uniquely, can show leadership in creating the means to remove private money from the elections of our public officials.
The city has issues of unfunded liabilities and there has been rumors of this being very expensive. Who pays for this?
Every aspect of our elections – including the salaries of the winning candidates who we might not have voted for – are paid for by the public. Only the campaigns themselves are left to be funded by private money. We all pay for our governments infrastructure to insure fair use by everyone.
Our challenges with the unfunded liabilities of our pension plans did not start in one year and will not be resolved in one year. In our present iteration, our ordinance caps the city’s liability for campaigns at $80K ($40K a year). Even at that low number we would not use all of the money. Out of a $120 million budget, that is indeed a small number. As for taking money away from other programs, that isn’t necessarily so. Reconciliations of unspent funds from previous year allocations, sin taxes, donations, etc., could all be considered beyond the general fund. Do we really feel that $1 a year per city resident is too much to pay to reduce the influence of private money in the elections of our public officials, especially if it can pave the way for the county, state, and federal elections that we all see have a problem with money?
We respect that City Council’s job is to be responsible stewards of our city budget. City staff’s first report on the cost of implementing the voucher program was wildly inflated as a precaution. For example, the assistant City Attorney allocated 1/3 of his time to deal with election malfeasance when he spends almost no time doing that now. Full time employee costs were budgeted both for a volunteer position and for someone to administer the program that operates for 4 months every other year. Moreover, the budget assumed that 100% of the registered voters of SLO would use their $20 vouchers and that candidates would spend 10 times more than they have customarily spent in previous elections. Those miscalculations or misunderstandings, unfairly and needlessly, inflated the cost of this ordinance by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Recently, the city found $186,000 for cost of living increases for SLO administrative employees. We annually pay $315K for our city manager (60% more than the governor of our state), and $270K for our city attorney. Why is it so hard to find $40,000 (annually) to run candidates impartially and address the most fundamentally corrosive problems to our governance? Why can we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a climate action plan but nothing on a democracy voucher plan? What do civil rights cost?
One cost that is never considered: Between Citizens Congress and the Campaign Legal Center in D.C., we have spent thousands and thousands of dollars and hours – at no cost to the city – to create an ordinance that we believe addresses CFR in the best interest of our city and the Republic at large, the holdings of the SCOTUS, and free speech, while addressing socio-economic inequalities, apathy, and the contempt that most citizens rightly feel for our government.