Panel Finishes Work on Campaign Reforms
A collection of homemakers, community activists and business leaders put the finishing touches on a groundbreaking campaign-finance ordinance and other reform measures Monday.
The Citizen’s Blue Ribbon Campaign Finance Reform Committee was formed two months ago to address problems with campaign financing and the perception, if not the reality, that money influences government decisions.
Taken as a package, the reforms would address that concern, said Jim Bruno, co-chairman of the reform committee. “We’re doing the right thing here,” he said. He later added, “We did what we set out to do.”
The committee’s proposals will be presented to the City Council, which has the final vote on the issue, later this month.
The proposed campaign finance ordinance would limit to $250 the amount any donor could contribute to a council candidate and would subject violators to civil penalties and possible criminal action. The ordinance would not limit overall campaign spending or contributions made by a candidate to his or her own campaign.
Four additional reform recommendations would initiate a major shift in city politics, possibly altering the way the fractious City Council does, or in some cases does not, work:
* Setting a two-term limit for City Council members.
* Creating an elected mayor.
* Providing free air time for candidates on the city-run cable television channel.
* Establishing a campaign ethics commission that would enforce the reform ordinance.
The committee voted unanimously to divide the ordinance and recommendations into two separate council agenda items, but made it clear the two sets of reforms were part of an overall package.
The ordinance is just a piece of the reform effort, said committee member Claudia Pelletier. “The recommendations are a big part of it.”
The council probably will discuss the ordinance June 23, but it is unclear what action it will take on the relatively open-ended recommendations.
Committee co-chair Dorothy Engel said the reform package would change the nature of the election process in Thousand Oaks. “I think it’s going to cut down on the acrimony in campaigns,” she said. “I think it’s going to change behavior.”
Although committee members declined to cite any specific examples, it was clear they referred to last year’s bitter, expensive attempt to recall Councilwoman Elois Zeanah and the ongoing infighting among council members during meetings.
“We’re not a role model for other cities when it comes to our council meetings,” Engel said.
Committee member Martha Van Heyde Huggins said the reforms would encourage renewed voter interest and community activism.
“I really hope the work of the committee will help us redirect the focus of the city to social services problems,” she said.
Monday’s session was upbeat, but some committee members questioned whether the proposals would go far enough in addressing current problems.
“I felt $250 was too much,” said member Mitch Rheingold. He also said he had wanted the committee to address the possibility of recommending that City Council members recuse themselves when voting on issues involving past campaign donors.
City Atty. Mark Sellers, who advised the committee during its two months of meetings, said a contribution limit without a cap on how much candidates could contribute to their own campaigns could have unintended consequences.
Because more affluent candidates often donate money to their own campaigns, Sellers said, such an ordinance could benefit “the wealthy candidate and not the person trying to raise money out in the public.”
The committee could not establish such restrictions, which courts have ruled unconstitutional.
The ordinance and other recommendations may only be a start for the reform effort, committee members said.
“Even if they don’t accept any of them, our job is done,” said co-chair Bruno. “I hope and pray we had a part in turning the community in another direction.”