Page One

Publicly Financed Elections Proposed

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday January 20, 2004

Berkeley could become the first city in the nation with public financing of local elections if voters approve the proposal supported by Mayor Tom Bates and at least two city councilmembers for the November ballot. 

In approving the idea in principle on a 6-2 vote, Commissioners suggested that public financing might begin with the mayor’s and councilmember’s offices and later expand to school board races and other citywide offices. 

Bates and Councilmembers Linda Maio and Dona Spring promoted the idea at last Thursday’s meeting of the Fair Campaign Practices Commission. 

According to the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Public Campaign organization, public financing of political campaigns are currently in effect in Arizona and Maine, and has been authorized in New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, and Massachussetts. 

At the same meeting, commissioners expressed little interest in a proposal to raise the individual campaign contribution limit in Berkeley elections from $250 to $500—letting the idea die without a formal vote or even a discussion. 

Bates suggested that a public campaign program could be financed by a $1 to $3 hike in parking ticket fees. While that suggestion evoked some skepticism from commissioners, they agreed that the money had to be raised somewhere, and left it up to City Council to fill in the details. 

While a city public campaign financing law could be authorized by a two-thirds vote of both the council and the Fair Campaign Practices Commission, Bates says he prefers bringing the matter before voters in a referendum. City Clerk Sherry Kelly said that for a measure to be ready for the November ballot, city staff would have to start drafting a detailed proposal this winter. 

Jim Ferguson, East Bay coordinator for Common Cause, told commissioners that Berkeley campaign expenditures have “shown a significant increase” over the past two elections, offering a chart that showed “the biggest [election] spender in the 2002 [Berkeley elections] was 50 percent higher than the previous high” (jumping from under $50,000 to more than $70,000), and “the lowest spender in 2002 was higher than two thirds of the candidates in previous elections.” 

Calling Berkeley races “godawful expensive,” Bates rejected “tinkering with the existing campaign finance system” by raising individual campaign contribution limits and told commissioners that “we need to scrap the whole thing. Most incumbents don’t want to change the laws under which they get elected, but our system is too out of whack, we need to change it.” 

Maio said that while she’s been interested in running for mayor for some time, she’d have to take out both a second mortgage and dip into her retirement savings to compete in a campaign. Calling the campaign costs “daunting,” the UC Berkeley retiree said, “I’m not a lawyer who can rely on fees from big cases.” 

Spring said she supported the public financing proposal “beaus it will probably give more candidates a competitive edge against an entrenched incumbent. As an entrenched incumbent myself, I’m not too happy about that. But I have to look at what’s best for the city as a whole.” 

Peralta Colleges Commissioner Darryl Moore, whose name has been floated as a possible candidate for Margaret Breland’s District 2 City Council seat should Breland decide not to run this fall, called Berkeley campaigns “too expensive...they have become obscene. Good candidates don’t get the chance to run, especially candidates of color.”