Saying there was no time to waste, Ventura County supervisors Tuesday approved a tough new campaign finance law that will tightly govern contributions and spending in county elections, including three supervisorial contests next year.
On a 4-1 vote, supervisors agreed that an ordinance should be enacted now rather than later. Some opponents had urged the board to wait, arguing that the reform measure needs more tweaking and public debate.
But supervisors said any further delay would preclude having the local law in effect for the March 2004 primary, a scenario they found unacceptable. Supervisors also created a five-member ethics commission that can haul suspected violators into hearings and levy civil penalties.
"This ordinance goes a long way toward taking big money out of elections as well as shining a bright light on contributors," Supervisor Linda Parks said.
Supervisor Judy Mikels was the lone dissenter. As in the past, Mikels said there are too many unanswered questions about how the ordinance will work and asked for more time to work out the details.
"There was never an effort to include the public, and that is my greatest discomfort," Mikels said.
In approving the measure, board members said they hope to curtail the influence of well-heeled contributors on elections.
Several referred to a political action committee, financed by a group of wealthy developers, that poured $53,000 into a futile effort to defeat Parks last year.
County records show that the committee, which calls itself Ventura Taxpayers for Responsible Government, apparently violated state law by repeatedly failing to file fund-raising reports on time. The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's enforcement agency, has yet to take any action.
"The campaign [Linda Parks] went through was the dirtiest campaign ever in Ventura County," Supervisor John Flynn said. "It was vicious, mean. If you want a reason why we need this measure, just look at that campaign."
Supervisor Steve Bennett said he met with Dist. Atty. Greg Totten twice in the last week to answer concerns that portions of the law might not withstand legal challenge.
Bennett and Supervisor Kathy Long, who co-authored the proposal, agreed to modify some of the wording. The most substantive change is in how the ethics commission members will be appointed, giving supervisors more direct control over that process, Bennett said.
Totten did not attend Tuesday's board meeting. In a statement, he called the modifications an "improvement." But he said he is still concerned other legal issues may arise.
The ordinance ties mandatory contribution limits to voluntary spending curbs. For supervisors, the spending cap would be $150,000 per election.
For countywide offices, such as district attorney, sheriff and tax collector, it would be $500,000. Candidates who abide by the spending cap can accept contributions of up to $600 without penalty; those who do not are limited to donations of up to $300, or they will face sanctions.
Anyone who raises more than $10,000 must post finance reports on the Internet. Bennett said the county can procure a software system used by the city of San Francisco for about $30,000.
Spending in recent county elections has spiraled dramatically. In the district attorney's race last year, Totten and his well-funded challenger spent about $1.5 million.
And more than $600,000 was spent in the Board of Supervisors contest between Parks and Thousand Oaks businessman Randy Hoffman.
On Tuesday, advocates of reform said the large sums being spent in campaigns discourage the public from taking part in elections.
"Many voters feel big money controls elections and their vote doesn't count," said Patricia Murray, president of the local League of Women Voters. "We hear that repeatedly."
Murray conceded that portions of the new law may need to be revised if found unworkable. But that is not cause for delay, she said. The league has supported campaign finance reform for nearly three decades, she noted.
"It may not be a perfect document, but it is much-needed and offers meaningful reform," Murray said.
The ordinance also got the backing of the county's Democratic Central Committee.
Opponents include all the county's elected managers, unions, the building industry and a handful of business leaders. County Assessor Dan Goodwin again assailed the document as too complex, calling it an "intimidating maze of new rules."
After the vote, Long said the many hours put into drafting the ordinance and winning support for it had been worth the effort. "It will put our county on the map as a leader in campaign finance reform," she said.