Following extensive discussion and public input about the role of money in local elections, Pleasanton City Council members unanimously agreed to set a voluntary $1,000 per individual contribution maximum for city office candidates but were split when it came to limits for campaign expenditures Tuesday evening.
Pleasanton is poised to be the second Tri-Valley city to adopt such an ordinance; the city of Dublin has a $500 limit per individual donor per election for a local candidate set in place since 2009.
Newly enacted state campaign finance legislation restricts an individual's donations to a candidate running for a county or city elected office at no more than $4,900, but local jurisdictions may adopt their own higher or lower contribution limits.
The definition of person also includes political action committees, which could make a donation to a candidate of up to $1,000, according to assistant city attorney Larissa Seto.
"But there's also a situation, if you have a political action committee that's independent of a candidate, then it can also make its own expenditures independently," Seto told the council.
Seto explained that it would be permissible for someone to donate $1,000 to a candidate, then another $1,000 to a PAC that in turn donated $1,000 toward the same campaign, "as long as that PAC isn't being controlled by that same candidate."
Though united on voluntary contribution limit, the council voted 3-2 to adopt the first reading of the ordinance as amended that evening to reflect new voluntary spending limits of $24,000 for council and $30,000 for mayoral campaigns. Councilmembers Jack Balch and Kathy Narum cast the dissenting votes.
After Narum, Balch and several public commenters argued against the original proposed limits of $15,000 for a council member candidate and $25,000 for a mayoral candidate, Councilmember Valerie Arkin, who originally brought the matter to the council, suggested increasing the expenditure amounts.
During last year's general election, all City Council candidates pledged to abide by and did not exceed the city's voluntary campaign expenditure limit of $55,325. Established in 2008, that limit breaks down to $1 per registered Pleasanton voter, plus inflation.
Seto said, "As the ordinance in our current municipal code exists, it's for an election period," so expenditures such as prepaid advertising made during an off-year wouldn't count toward the expenditure limit.
Narum asked about the limits that could be independently spent by an individual on a candidate or candidate's committee, to which Seto replied there's "not so much limits as reporting requirements."
"Not to pick on Councilmember Balch, but since he's not up for re-election until 2024 ... in the four-year period, he could only accept $1,000 from an individual as long as he's signing that voluntary pledge, is that correct?" Narum said, which Seto affirmed.
Mayor Karla Brown asked who enforces the voluntary pledges now, and Seto said they're not subject to enforcement.
"Voluntary expenditure limits do have some concerns that have been challenged in court before, and so when the council adopted that in 2008, there was a very specific interest in making sure that was voluntary and not subject to any fines or penalties, so that's what we're proposing here going forward," Seto said.
Though not enforced or monitored by the city, "I imagine that is something the court of public opinion might be tracking," Seto added.
During public comment, former city planning commissioner and 2016 council candidate Herb Ritter said he supported "taking big money, special interests out of elections" and the $1,000 per donor limit, but not "capping new candidates from raising funds to help get out their message."
"What I would encourage you to do is stop making more rules and start enforcing the ones you have or change them," Ritter said.
Ritter added, "I also think you could cap incumbents and not new candidates as an option. I think incumbents have a huge, huge advantage as history shows. I encourage you to follow the state law and not try to over-regulate local campaigns."
Bryan Gillette, who co-chaired the Yes on Measure M campaign and former councilmember Jerry Pentin's bid for mayor last year, said his experience showed him "how difficult it is to raise money and how expensive voter outreach really is."
"Mailers, lawn signs and advertisements are expensive, and with a growing community, outreach is vital," Gillette said. "The limits being proposed are so low as to only benefit those currently in office and stifle challengers."
"These arbitrary low limits will reduce transparency, as money will be funneled into political action committees and independent expenditures by individuals, making it harder to know who is behind the candidate," Gillette added. "When money is funneled through PACs, it becomes harder for me to know whose interest is being represented."
Brown said she didn't want "any of the five of us or any future council members to have a reputation that they bought a seat on this council," and that "when I ran last time, I said I'm not taking PAC money."
However, Narum noted the Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters PAC "did give some money there in 2020" to Brown's campaign, in the form of $1,000, "so let's be honest about that."
Arkin called campaign finance reform "a big issue countrywide, but even locally here in Pleasanton I would say it filters down to the local level."
"This was not meant to be about my campaign, but I was a newbie running for school board with $2,400, and I won and I came in second place, in first (place) was the incumbent," Arkin said. "I ran for City Council not being an incumbent and spent about $6,200, raised just a little more than that. I don't think you need to raise that kind of money to win a seat, and I'm an obvious example of that."
The second reading and final adoption of the ordinance are expected to take place at the next regular council meeting.