Future candidates running for public office in the city of Pleasanton could face lower contributions from campaign donors in the next election after the City Council majority agreed to setting local contribution limits at their Tuesday night meeting.
Mayor Karla Brown declared it "time to get big money out of Pleasanton's government offices" before voting, 3-2, to establish an ordinance restricting the amount that an individual could donate to a local candidate. Councilmembers Kathy Narum and Jack Balch cast the dissenting votes after a lengthy discussion.
Vice Mayor Julie Testa also supported Brown in "sending a message," and said "we know on so many levels how money is the problem with politics."
"For a city council campaign at our level, the kind of money that has been spent, I think it's unnecessary," Testa said.
The state's newly enacted Political Reform Act and Local Contribution Limits restricts an individual's donations to a candidate running for a county or city elected office at a maximum of $4,900, but local jurisdictions may adopt their own contribution limit that is higher or lower.
Federal candidate contribution limits are a maximum of $2,800 per individual donor per election, and the city of Dublin set a $500 limit per individual donor per election for a local candidate in 2009.
Because no candidates received an individual contribution exceeding the state's $4,900 for the general election in November, staff did not recommend setting any higher limit. However, they said attempts to restrict how much a candidate may give or loan to their own campaign "have not withstood legal challenge."
The city's voluntary campaign expenditure pledge adopted in 2008 also engaged the council in extensive dialogue. All 12 candidates for local office last year signed the pledge, committing themselves to spending no more than $55,325 on their campaigns, and a maximum of $1 per registered voter plus an inflation adjustment.
Currently no other Tri-Valley city has a campaign expenditure limit, which staff confirmed can only be voluntary and may not apply any penalties, as courts have ruled that expenditure limits are "invalid under the First Amendment, as it is a direct form of restraint on expression and association."
Balch called it "already pretty daunting to be willing to run for office" and said departing from the state outline feels "like we're disenfranchising potential people from running by having a local change."
"That being said, I understand the concept of a dollar per voter," Balch said.
Councilmember Valerie Arkin, who originally motioned to agendize the matter, suggested expenditure limits of $15,000 for city council campaigns and $25,000 for mayoral campaigns, while Testa said she "couldn't imagine needing more than $15,000, but I would be willing to suggest that we look at 50 cents per voter, which is over the $15,000."
Balch argued reaching voters during a pandemic wasn't simple: "I was not able to go out and knock on your door...the reality is you cannot foresee all of the challenges a candidate may have."
In the interest of transparency, Balch suggested "accurate and timely disclosure filings," noting that several still have not been filed from the election.
"We have other challenges associated with transparency for our electorate," Balch added. "No one's hit the limit. Maybe the limit can reset to $1 per voter. Remove the inflation, something like that."
Narum implored the council majority to "stop and think about what you're doing," and said there's "nothing stopping" individuals from giving to political action committees to spend on behalf of their preferred candidate.
"You're pushing away the transparency and the disclosures of who's funding the candidates themselves," Narum said. "I ask you to think about, do you really want to drive funding out to PACs and independent expenditures? Is that really in the best interest of transparency, disclosure and good government? To me, it's not."
Any new contribution limits could be enforced through a contract with the Fair Political Practices Commission, which would cost about $55,000 annually, though assistant city attorney Larissa Seto said if extensive enforcement and legal action are required, "there could be additional costs related to that."
"The concern would be for the city that if we didn't have an organization like the FPPC with that kind of expertise, there isn't staff resources that regularly handle campaign finance issues and wouldn't be able to, unless we had dedicated people tracking these kinds of issues," Seto said.