Any reforms to current campaign finance law will not be enacted in time to affect the elections in November, due to the City Council’s voting through of a substitute measure when it readjourned Monday evening. The passing of any substitute measure kills the initial measure, which in this case would have referred several proposals to the city manager’s office.
The initial measure sponsored by Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring would have required the city manager’s office to come up with a viable matching funds plan. This plan would then have to go back to council for approval or be placed on the November ballot for a citywide vote.
To make the ballot, the measure would have to be handled like a top priority, and it would require the immediate attention of the city manager and city attorney.
The time-sensitive measure has already been tabled twice by council.
A substitute measure suggested by Councilmembers Polly Armstrong and Miriam Hawley would refer the entire issue of reform, particularly the possible range of costs, to the budget process. This effectively kills reform’s chances of affecting the November election — Council votes on the budget on June 25 and the process of allocating funds to takes a minimum of several months.
But questions over whether implementing a matching funds program is financially feasible during a time of budget cuts, and whether election reform is necessary in a city that already has strict limits on campaign contributions, have emerged.
Council learned on Tuesday of a budget deficit totaling $2.86 million, and now face the task of cutting programs and staff to try to reach a balance. They may not have been aware of the specific numbers involved, but they knew on Monday there was a budgetary shortfall.
“The biggest reason for the measure’s failure at present is because there isn’t any money,” Mayor Dean said. “But there was also no discussion in the community, in council, or with the [Fair Campaign Practices] commission previous to this. I think there was a lack of groundwork by Worthington and Spring. While I’m by no means opposed to campaign finance reform, I do want to know what the details are.”
Armstrong questioned the necessity of finance reform in Berkeley.
“The fact is that years ago we took a lot of steps to be sure that big money didn’t have a role in our elections. No corporation or organization can donate, and the maximum amount for an individual is $250,” Armstrong said.
“I think the BERA (Berkeley Election Reform Act) is fair, and I believe no one in the government’s vote is going to be determined by a $250 check,” she added.
Currently, under the Berkeley Election Reform Act, campaign contributions are limited to $250, and they can only come from individuals. Corporations, unions and organizations such as nonprofits are not allowed to contribute.
Finance reform proposals submitted under the initial measure were drafted by the Berkeley Party and by the UCB chapter of Common Cause. Common Cause is a grass roots lobbying group with the mission statement of promoting honesty, accountability and integrity in government. Jody Schnell of Common Cause says they will continue to seek public financing for future elections — the common thread of both proposals — and are open to input from all sectors of the community.
“We think that public financing gives the utmost amount of people the chance to run, so we really want to continue talking about these issues,” she says. She also says that from their perspective, the intent isn’t to fix an existing problem in Berkeley, but to be proactive in creating the fairest and most encouraging election system in a nonpartisan matter.
With the continuing effort by such groups, local campaign finance reform is bound to reappear.
Until then, it is Armstrong’s opinion that the current campaign finance law is sufficient and fair.
“I’ve been active in Berkeley for 16 years, and no matter how angry I got or how hard I looked, I’ve never seen a sign or shred of anyone making a decision based on money, and that’s’ politicians as well as employees,” she said. “Instead of tying ourselves in knots, we should be patting ourselves on the back.”
Councilmembers Worthington and Spring were unavailable by press time.
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