Increasing the maximum amount of campaign contributions and whether businesses should be allowed to donate money to candidates are among the considerations the Belmont City Council will explore as it evaluates whether its current policies are both legal and timely.
The council discussed updating its ordinance Tuesday night along with getting rid of a third campaign contribution report, whether donors must disclose their identity and who should be allowed to contribute to those running for any city office.
The city seeks to enact updates before the November election during which two seats — currently occupied by Mayor David Braunstein and Councilwoman Cathy Wright — the city clerk and treasurer are up for a vote.
“I’d like to make sure it’s done well before the election so anyone who’s interested would be well informed. … But I’d rather get it done right than do it more quickly,” Braunstein said. “Things have changed externally, requiring us to think about some things.”
Seeking consistency with constitutional law
Currently, those running for a Belmont office are barred from accepting contributions from businesses or organizations and conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
The 2010 constitutional law case allows nonprofits, corporations, unions and other associations to make contributions in an election and Belmont Councilman Charles Stone is concerned the city’s 2009 ordinance could be challenged.
“Citizens United and its case law seems to say people and organizations should be treated the same for political contribution purposes. And that’s certainly an issue for me and something I think is not in the best interest of the country. But it’s the law of the land right now and for Belmont to ban contributions from any business, corporation, may expose us to potential litigation and I think it’s a good practice for cities to have a fluid review process of ordinances to make sure we’re in compliance with applicable laws,” Stone said.
Councilman Warren Lieberman said he favors allowing those served by the city to make campaign donations.
“We serve a community; our community includes homeowners, it includes renters, it includes landlords, it includes local businesses. So I believe that everyone we’re serving should have the right to support a candidate for council of their choice,” Lieberman said. “It gives them a voice.”
The council instructed the city attorney to research the applicability of Citizens United to Belmont while the city clerk investigate neighboring cities’ campaign finance ordinances.
Caps on funding
Belmont currently limits funding from individuals at $250 per year. San Mateo caps it at $250 for individuals and $500 for businesses while Burlingame has a limit of $500 for individuals and no more than $1,000 from a business, Stone said.
“There is the issue of the $250 cap that was placed in 2009. Two-hundred-and-fifty dollars today may or may not be the same in 2025 and $250 in 2050 definitely won’t have the same buying power as it does today,” Stone said. “I could be wrong, but to me I think [the current cap] gives incumbents a bit of an advantage and even though I will theoretically be an incumbent some day, I think it would be nice to level the playing a little bit.”
Braunstein agreed the limits may need some adjusting while he and Stone remained conscientious of wanting people of lesser means to not be discouraged from running for an office.
Braunstein said he was mayor at the time the 2009 ordinance was approved and some concerns remain.
“In general, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t make it too expensive and we wanted to make it so a lot of people had access if they wanted to run. Which is why we tried to keep some of the donations down to try to reduce some of the barriers to entry for people to be involved,” Braunstein said.
Another limit discussed was the amount a person could loan themselves; in other words how much one can spend on their own campaign, Stone said. Placing caps on loans could also reduce inequity between candidates of different financial means, Stone said.
The state requires candidates make two disclosures of their donations and expenses while Belmont requires a third, just days before the election.
There was consensus at Tuesday’s meeting that the third filing may no longer serve its purpose, City Clerk Terri Cook said.
“The way campaigns are run are so different now with vote by mail. It used to be there was more activity at the last minute,” Cook said. “It just doesn’t happen that way anymore because people are voting a month before the election and that’s originally what the extra filing was put in there for; to capture that last bit of activity.”
Councilmembers had varied on whether contributors should have to disclose their identities.
Lieberman said while he respects some may want to remain anonymous, he’d like a cap on the amount one can donate without disclosing their identity.
While the council has an array of options and different ideas, Braunstein, Stone and Lieberman said they were keeping an open mind and added that contemplating the ordinance was important.
“I think it’s very good that we are having a health discussion on this topic,” Lieberman said. “It’s a tough issue. I’ve seen city council campaigns go to $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 in some of the neighboring cities. I just don’t think that’s right, I don’t think it’s necessary.”
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