By Daniel Mintz
County election campaigns are getting more expensive and the Board of Supervisors has acknowledged concerns about the influence of money by taking initial steps toward finance reform.
Ideas like capping individual campaign donations and having candidates voluntarily agree on overall fundraising caps were explored at the Jan. 22 supervisors meeting. Board Chairman Ryan Sundberg and Supervisor Virginia Bass agendized the discussion and Bass noted that the cities of Arcata and Eureka have already enacted ordinances that limit individual campaign contribution amounts.
Bass, Sundberg and supervisors Estelle Fennell and Rex Bohn have all benefitted from a recent trend in county elections – they’ve gotten early jumps on campaign funding from a bloc of development-related businesses. Supervisor Mark Lovelace alluded to the trend, saying that capping individual contributions won’t change things.
“Knowing what’s gone into the last couple rounds of elections here, at that point we shouldn’t bother having one because I don’t think it would have any notable effect,” he continued. He added that large, single-shot contributions affected past elections but recent times have seen the “collecting up and bundling” of multiple donations to kick off campaigns that share similar political themes.
Bass acknowledged that there’s concern about the way campaigns are funded. “I know that there’s some talk out there that a gang of 20 at $1,000 apiece somehow outweighs a source that does $30,000 or $40,000 a year,” she said. “I’m not sure I agree with that but it’s part of the discussion that we’ll have.”
Saying she disagreed with Lovelace but carefully choosing her words, Bass added, “I’d like to think that elections are looking different these days and that huge money is not out there waiting to come in but I don’t feel that comfort level coming from what I’m hearing from you and I do think it still needs to be addressed – there’s some value in that.”
Earlier in the discussion, Fennell said she has doubts about enacting a cap on overall fundraising amounts, noting that much of her campaign treasury was made up of scores of donations from community members.
Campaign finance reform would ultimately be defined through a new ordinance but County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said a first step will be “collecting information” on what’s being done in other counties. The county’s Elections Advisory Committee is a likely source of input, he continued, and “additional public involvement” could be requested.
Supervisor Rex Bohn said looking at what’s worked and been deemed legal elsewhere is important. He favors targeting large donations from single sources. “It hasn’t been that long ago where we’ve had tumultuous campaigns with outside money and large donations that’s at the crux of what we’re trying to stop to a certain extent,” said Bohn.
Supervisors emphasized the importance of making the process inclusive and subject to recommendations from residents. But there were no takers on an invitation for public comment.