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Public Financing of Elections Clears Hurdle

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Despite the city attorney’s reluctance, the Fair Campaign Practices Commission voted 7-1 Thursday to ask the Berkeley City Council to put a measure before the voters in November that would support public financing for council and mayoral elections.  

Commissioner Dennis White voted in opposition; one commission seat is vacant. 

The FCPC will present an oral report on its decision to the council today (Tuesday), after which the council could vote on the concept. If it approves the clean money proposal in principle, the city attorney will draft the measure in time for final approval before the council recess. 

The Berkeley-Albany-Emeryville League of Women Voters (LWV) is among the clean money sponsors. Sherry Smith, outgoing LWV president, told the commission the measure is needed because elected officials listen to “friends” who contribute to their campaigns.  

“Wouldn’t it be better if the public were your ‘friends?’” she asked. 

The City Council voted to ask the commission to look at the public financing issue, limiting consideration to the mayor’s race. The commission, however, broadened its deliberations to address both council and mayoral elections. It went even further, noting that in the future it would consider expanding the measure to cover school board and auditor races. 

If the proposal is approved, candidates would collect $5 contributions to indicate they have community support: 600 for mayoral candidates and 150 for council hopefuls. Funding would come from the general fund and equal $4 per resident (or $410,972) per year, with a $2 million cap. Candidates could receive and spend up to $140,000 for the mayor’s race and $20,000 for the council contest.  

In a letter to the FCPC, Sam Ferguson of the Berkeley Clean Elections Coalition, which is spearheading the public financing effort, pointed to a 2002 election where one council candidate spent $70,000 and the opponent, $40,000, causing, he said, the candidate with less funding to lose. (Gordon Wozniak raised about $73,000 and the closest challenger, Andy Katz, raised about $33,000, according to campaign finance statements.) 

“There is a political arms race in Berkeley that must be stopped,” he said. 

Several weeks ago, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque had said her office was too busy to write the ordinance before the council deadline, but on Monday, in a phone interview with the Daily Planet, she affirmed that, though it would be difficult, she would be able to make the deadline.  

At the commission meeting, Albuquerque had urged commissioners to move slower. 

“I’m not sure why we have to do it in November,” she said. “You have time. I can’t give you decent staff support.” 

Albuquerque urged the commission to take a year to thoroughly analyze each section of the draft. 

However, Commissioner Stephen Bedrick argued: “If people want public financing in 2008, then it has to be on the 2006 ballot.” 

Albuquerque said there is a mechanism for the council to adopt public financing without going to the voters, but Bedrick argued that would put the council in the position of supporting something voters rejected two years ago. 

“My nickel says the voters will pass it this time,” he said. 

In 2004 voters rejected a public financing ballot measure 59 to 41 percent. While he voted to support the measure, Commission Chair Eric Weaver said he was concerned about putting a similar proposal before the voters so soon. 

“If it is defeated again, that’s it,” he said. 

Ferguson responded from his seat in the audience, arguing that this year is different. In 2004, Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes (BASTA) opposed several tax measures on the ballot and lumped public financing of elections in with them. 

Now is the time, Smith said: “We have a lot of good press on clean money. People are thinking about how to clean up the election process. Every once in a while your stars line up—they are lined up now.” 

White, the only commissioner to oppose the measure, did not speak against it at the meeting, knowing, he said by phone on Friday, he would be outvoted. 

White told the Daily Planet he opposes the measure because of the ease with which a council candidate could collect 150 signatures and get access to public funds. 

“I could see somebody doing it for a lark,” he said, adding that the current $250 contribution cap is a sufficient deterrent to corruption.  

Moreover, the act of going door to door to solicit donations has political value, since candidates talk about issues while collecting funds, he said. And White said the commissioners should have listened to the city attorney and not rushed to approve the proposal. 


Clean elections on California ballot 

Meanwhile, Californians for Clean Elections (CCE) announced Monday that they had collected the required number of valid signatures to place a state-wide public financing initiative on the November ballot. 

“This initiative is intended to enable elected leaders to focus on the wishes and needs of all its citizens rather than their campaign contributors,” according to a CCE statement. 

In response, Assemblymember Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, announced in a press statement that she will drop her public financing legislation to allow political reform organizations to focus on the ballot measure. 

“The public has lost faith in California’s electoral process,” Hancock said in the statement. “Clean Money will reform the electoral system and re-establish trust with the voters.”