Over the protests of the official who authored the city’s campaign finance law, the City Council has agreed to abolish a provision that prohibits organized groups from giving money to candidates.
The council voted 5 to 2 Monday night to draft an amended campaign finance ordinance because of concerns that it may be unconstitutional. Councilmen Gary Tuttle and Steve Bennett, who wrote the ordinance, voted against the change.
If the ordinance is amended, Bennett argued, any resident might be able to contribute an unlimited amount of money to a candidate’s campaign through a political action committee without ever identifying themselves.
“People are now going to able to legally launder money,” said Bennett, who has not decided if he will run for reelection in November. “I’m growing increasingly concerned that we have opened a loophole that will negate campaign limits all together.”
Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures, who voted to support the amended ordinance, said she found the council’s discussion and the implications of dishonesty disturbing.
“The continued inference of dishonesty as it relates to campaign contributions is a travesty to elected officials who commit their lives to serving the community,” she said Tuesday.
In addition to Bennett, the terms of Measures, Councilman Jim Monahan and Tuttle will expire in November. Only Tuttle has said he will not seek reelection.
The Ventura ordinance, one of the most restrictive in the state, was approved by 81% of the voters in 1995, and this fall will see the first election in which it is in effect. Any amendment to the ordinance requires five yes votes from council members.
The law stipulates that anyone who gives more than $25 to a political campaign must be identified. It also prohibits any candidate from receiving an individual contribution of more than $100 unless that candidate agrees to spend less than $20,000. In this case, the candidate can receive up to $200.
But the provision of the law that prohibits PACs or other groups from contributing to candidates’ campaigns has drawn the most attention and concern.
In a memo to council members earlier this year, City Atty. Bob Boehm questioned the legality of this section of the law on the grounds that it may violate the free speech rights guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.
“We believe that if it were put to the test, it would be found to be unconstitutional,” Boehm said of the ordinance.
But Bennett noted that San Diego has had a similar campaign finance ordinance in place since 1973 and that it has never been challenged.
“I would prefer, and I think a lot of Ventura citizens would prefer, a more progressive situation that the city of San Diego has had for 24 years,” he said.
Under an amended Ventura ordinance, Bennett said it would be impossible to monitor how much individuals give if PACs are allowed to contribute.
“It costs nothing to set up a PAC,” he said. “You could set up 10 PACs and give $10,000.”
Boehm agreed that it was possible.
Tuttle called the provision a gray area. “But I don’t think that is a good enough reason to undermine the clear direction given by the citizens,” he said.
During Monday night’s meeting, resident Hugh Oliver asked the council why the issue is being taken up two years after voters approved the initiative and only five months before the November council election.
“If their vote is tampered with, people should be noticed,” he told the council.