The recent municipal campaigns in Burbank and Glendale helped illustrate the complexity and general opaqueness of independent expenditures — a campaign funding mechanism that has no finance limit and can be difficult to track.
Dubbed “the giant gorilla in campaign finance” by a 2008 California Fair Political Practices Commission report, independent expenditures — when outside groups fund political ads or mailers in support or opposition to a candidate or ballot measure — have become increasingly prominent on all election levels in recent years.
In the Burbank City Council and Glendale Unified school board races, independent expenditures outpaced all other spending. And in the close race for Glendale City Council, incumbents Dave Weaver and John Drayman benefited from more than $10,000 in outside spending, little of which was on file with the city clerk before the April 5 election.
While proponents of the spending say it is an important expression of First Amendment rights, critics often point to the mechanism as a way of getting around limits on campaign contributions to candidates, like those in place in Glendale and Burbank.
Open government advocates say it is important for voters to know the interests backing candidates before hitting the polls.
“It gives the public vital information as to who supports certain candidates, who is attempting to defeat certain candidates,” said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan think tank.
But while candidate fundraising is generally simple to track — with several fundraising reports required to be filed with the city clerk in the months leading up to the election — confusion surrounding the complex state rules guiding the reporting of independent expenditures at the municipal level means that spending by some groups can go relatively unnoticed.
Glendale resident Alek Bartrosouf said he spent a considerable amount of time tracking the campaigns and candidate fundraising before casting his vote last week, but was unaware of the independent expenditures.
“I feel like there is some responsibility to get this information out to the public,” he said. “As someone who is an informed voter, I would be really interested in seeing those documents prior to making my vote.”
In the race for the Glendale Unified School board, the political action committee for the Glendale teachers union spent more than $41,000, mostly for mailings promoting union-endorsed candidates.
In Burbank, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, a union that represents 138 city employees, spent $42,110 campaigning in support of Robert Frutos and to oppose his competition, Emily Gabel-Luddy, for the April 12 election.
The IBEW also spent $18,861 in support of Burbank City Councilman Gary Bric’s reelection campaign.
While the IBEW filed the proper paperwork with the city clerk’s office to document the spending, the forms were not listed on the city’s website — the same place where candidate fundraising and spending was posted.
Gabel-Luddy — who beat Frutos by 95 votes — said she was disappointed the information hadn’t been more readily available for voters, and that she hoped to address the issue after she is sworn in.
“We should, as a city, deliver the same kind of transparency about all financial participants in an election because voters have a right to be informed of everything, and that includes independent expenditures,” she said.
In Glendale, independent expenditure filings were posted on the city clerk’s election website. But some groups did not properly disclose their spending.
The Glendale Police Officers Assn. political action committee and the Sierra Club each spent more than $1,000 — the amount that triggers the reporting provisions — to advocate for City Council candidates, but failed to meet the filing requirements.
On Wednesday, Glendale Police Officers Assn. President Larry Ballesteros said the late filing was an oversight.
“We were aware of the oversight and proper steps were taken to rectify the situation, and we are now in compliance,” he said. “There seems to be a little bit of confusion on to what the state law requires and what the city law requires.”
The Sierra Club spent roughly $1,080 in the final days of the campaign on three newspaper ads supporting Drayman, but has yet to file with the city. Fred Dong, co-chair of the Crescenta Valley group, a part of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club who organized the ad, said he was unaware of any filing requirements.
But Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian said any group that chooses to enter the political spending arena should make sure they’re well versed on the laws.
“If they are going to play in the world of politics, these independent expenditure committees have to step it up,” he said. “And I think the public has to place them under the same scrutiny that we place on the candidates.”