Council may strengthen campaign finance laws

The City Council this week moved to strengthen campaign finance and ethics regulations in an effort to eliminate even the appearance of inappropriate campaign activities.

The move comes after more than $100,000 was funneled to past City Council campaigns through subcontractors — and their family members — who worked for Advanced Development & Investment Inc.

City Atty. Scott Howard told the City Council on Tuesday that the draft ordinance establishes so-called “bookends” that span two years.

The proposal would prohibit City Council members from voting on contracts worth $25,000 or more for one year after receiving a contribution from the applicant, contractors or their subcontractors. Additionally, a council member could not accept a contribution from the same set of people for one year after their work, also valued at $25,000 or more, is approved.

The measure covers more than businesses in the construction industry. It includes anyone who provides professional services to the city, such as work on computers, advertising or engineering. Competitively-bid contracts are exempt, Howard said.

As part of the measure, city officials would create a database listing all applicants, contractors and subcontractors who have done work in the city. Council members could then check the information to see if they’ve received contributions from anyone in the database.

Mayor Laura Friedman requested that the proposed ordinance state that the database be identified as the overriding source for that information.

A list of contributions is already available in the city clerk’s office.

Gathering information for contractors and subcontractors is ground-breaking, Howard said.

“You’re drilling down two levels deeper than you find in other communities,” he said.

Howard pointed out that the measure contains a clause that stresses the voting prohibition applies only when the council member knows, or has reason to know, of the contribution, and the information is readily available.

And there are exceptions. Developers may not have selected contractors or subcontractors when they file to begin a project. Contractors or their subs could then make a campaign contribution shortly after the filing date, only to be hired later by the applicant.

In that scenario, the council member would not be in violation, Howard said, because the contribution was made prior to the contractor being hired.

Violating campaign restrictions remains a misdemeanor charge, Howard said, but there may also be civil penalties.

Councilman Ara Najarian said the tighter restrictions mean that he and his colleagues will have to be more careful in the future.

“We have to be very vigilant and make sure we don’t make a mistake,” he said.

Another proposed change would let a single contributor give up to $1,000 to every candidate in an election.

The proposed ordinance would also eliminate the limit on how much candidates can loan to their own campaigns. That amount currently stands at $5,000.

Under the proposed ordinance, council members could also establish officeholder accounts to pay a variety of expenses, ranging from attending nonprofit events to enrolling in courses to improve their knowledge and skills as elected officials.

There would be an annual hard cap of $15,000 on these accounts, according to the proposal, but council members suggested the limit be reduced to $10,000 with the ability to backfill as expenditures are made.

Money in officeholder accounts could not be used on campaigns, and once a council member left office, left-over money in the account funds would go to a charity, help pay outstanding expenses or be put into the city’s General Fund, Howard said.

During the public-comment portion of the meeting, two members of the League of Women Voters requested the city hold public forums about the proposed changes. Council members said they’ve held two public meetings about the new restrictions and residents have had their chance to let them know what they think. The first public meeting was held in April.

The proposed changes are scheduled to come back to the City Council Aug. 9.

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