Divided Richmond council approves major campaign finance reforms
By Robert Rogers
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 07/25/2012 11:53:46 AM PDT
Updated: 07/25/2012 11:53:46 AM PDT
Richmond passed two ordinances Tuesday aimed at reducing the influence of money in local politics.
The first law prohibits candidates who receive public matching funds from accepting campaign contributions of more than $40,000.
The second ordinance, which staff said was the first municipal law of its kind in California, requires elected officials to disqualify themselves from proceedings that involve donors who have given them more than $250 within the previous 12 months.
Both laws were passed with split decisions thanks to backing from the council's progressive majority.
"Big money in politics corrupts, period," said Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who joined Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and council members Tom Butt and Jeff Ritterman in voting for both laws.
But dissenters, including some residents, said the laws would stifle candidates, favor the incumbents and dissuade residents from making even modest financial contributions.
"Why pass this now? Why during an election period?" asked Councilman Nat Bates, who is up for re-election in November. "This clearly isn't fair because it favors the incumbents."
Both laws could be in place before the November election, when Bates and Butt face re-election. Ritterman has said he will not seek re-election.
The first ordinance imposes a new provision on the city's existing public financing law, which provides candidates up to $25,000 in matching funds on the first $30,000 they raise. The new law, which passed 4-3 on its second reading Tuesday, takes effect next month. It will require any candidate who raises more than $40,000 to forfeit all public financing.
"We would like to differentiate elections from auctions," Ritterman said. "This turns the dial down."
Other supporters noted that the law puts a ceiling on total spending with public financing at $65,000.
But several speakers and council members Bates and Corky Booze accused the council's progressive majority of stacking the deck in their favor ahead of November. The majority has the support of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a volunteer-based political group that eschews all corporate donations. RPA-backed candidates have won with less money than some challengers with deep-pocketed support.
"To attack the good government of the city of Richmond because you can't get the big boys on your team is unfair," said Corky Booze, who has the support of Chevron Corp. and other business interests.
The second law, pushed for weeks by Butt, is modeled after a state law prohibiting appointed officials from making decisions on matters in which they have a financial connection.
Former City Attorney Randy Riddle, retained as a consultant to help craft what he called a "complicated" law to suit the city, said the ordinance would disqualify council members from voting on matters that effect donors.
A council member is disqualified from voting on any matter that impacts anyone who has donated more than $250 to that member within the last year.
Bates and Booze complained that the law could punish violations by both the councilmember and the donor with $5,000 fines and six months in jail.
"I don't want to make a criminal out of my citizens," Booze said.
Butt said the effect of both laws should be felt this November and beyond.
"These are going to increase transparency and reduce the effect of big checks being written by people with projects in play," Butt said.
The $250 ordinance is scheduled for a second reading July 31.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers