Simi to Look at Campaign Finance Reform


Seeking to squelch any appearance of undue influence by development interests, the City Council next week will consider campaign finance reforms for local elections.

Councilman Paul Miller, who raised the issue in December, said he hopes his colleagues will support capping individual and corporate donations at $250, among other possible restrictions outlined in a report by City Atty. David Hirsch.

“I think the general public does have a concern about the amount of money developers give to council members, and they feel we may be voting for these projects because of the donations we accept,” said Miller, who has accepted thousands of dollars from builders in the past but said he will refuse such contributions when he runs for reelection next year.


“There are some people in this community who think the council is in the pocket of developers,” he said.

At its meeting Monday night, council members are scheduled to discuss finance reforms and could decide to have a new ordinance drafted, Hirsch said.

If Simi Valley adopts reforms, it would become the third Ventura County city to do so. Ventura and Thousand Oaks have ordinances to limit contribution amounts, the number of candidates to which one person can give and the period during which donations can be made.

But the Simi Valley reform effort has already run into resistance from at least two elected officials--Mayor Bill Davis and Councilwoman Barbra Williamson--who question its necessity.

“I don’t think the system is broken, so I don’t know why we’re trying to fix it,” said Williamson, who raised nearly $50,000 in her November reelection bid, including $1,000 and $2,000 donations from several developers. “I’m willing to listen, but I know myself and I know I can’t be bought.”

Miller stresses he is not accusing any of his colleagues of behaving inappropriately, but maintains something must be done to address a negative public perception. Councilman Glen Becerra agreed.


“What’s important is making sure the community you represent has faith in the system,” Becerra said, adding he is more concerned about speeding up the disclosure of major contributors than putting a cap on the amount they can give.


Larry Makinson, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics, said there are numerous examples of campaign contributions influencing public policymaking. Those connections can be particularly blatant on the local level, he said.

“There’s not a politician in the country who will ever admit a campaign contribution caused a change in their behavior, and it’s probably only those elected officials who believe that,” Makinson said.

Developer Robert Selleck II, who has a project pending on 36 acres across from Simi Valley City Hall, said he thinks of campaign contributions simply as a way to help defray election costs.

“I don’t expect anything in return,” he said. “It’s really just a fact of life.” But Selleck conceded contributing to politicians--part of having a working relationship with them--helps open lines of communication.

“If there was some matter of concern, I’d hope I would at least be able to talk to them about it,” he said.


In neighboring Thousand Oaks, the two candidates who won in the November election included in their joint platform a refusal of any developer contributions.

Still, money remained an issue--despite reforms enacted after a bitter 1997 recall effort against then-Councilwoman Elois Zeanah.

Slow-growth champion Ed Masry spent nearly $200,000 of his own money on polling, consultants and slick mailers. Many of those brochures featured pictures of Councilwoman Linda Parks--who was running for reelection--endorsing him.

“Parks and Masry both, in my opinion, violated in every way the spirit of our campaign reform law, and the community opted to take an apathetic approach,” said Planning Commissioner Jim Bruno, one of the unsuccessful candidates in that race.

Bruno, who also spearheaded the 1998 campaign reforms, said Simi Valley officials should establish an ethics commission of citizens to monitor campaign activities. He pushed unsuccessfully for such a panel in Thousand Oaks.

“You have to create a jury of public opinion, or you’re going to have another Masry,” he said. “The faces change but the spirit of buying an election doesn’t.”


By contrast, restrictions in Ventura seem to have improved its campaign finance climate. An interesting provision of Ventura’s law is a voluntary $20,000 spending cap that, if followed, allows a $200 rather than a $100 cap for individual contributions.

“I think we’re in a position now where a campaign is going to be run in a more affordable way, which brings more people to the table,” Ventura Mayor Sandy Smith said. “It’s evened the playing field quite a bit.”


Whether Simi Valley could experience similar benefits remains to be seen, though longtime political players Williamson and Davis are skeptical.

“If you limit campaign fund-raising, the person you hurt is the one trying to get into office--not the one who’s there,” said Davis, saying as an incumbent he could raise a few thousand dollars in 30 minutes of phone calls.

Davis said he would support limiting donations to $1,000, but has reservations about other reforms.

“It’s a very difficult thing to try to control,” he said.