In a reversal of its previous split-vote decision, the Burlingame City Council this week opted not to increase campaign contribution limits for its campaigns, and councilmembers voiced approval instead for reducing current limits corresponding with the city’s upcoming switch to district elections.
The change of direction comes after an outpouring of community disapproval of the increased limits, which would have scrapped the city’s $720 cap on donations from individuals and $1,440 cap from organizations and instead deferred to a state law limiting contributions from both groups to $4,900. The city last month approved the switch with a 3-2 vote, and ordinance was headed for final approval Monday.
“People have spoken, and I’m very much listening,” Councilmember Donna Colson said, who had initially supported adopting the state’s limits along with Mayor Ann O’Brien Keighran and Vice Mayor Ricardo Ortiz. “We’re hearing it loud and clear.”
Support for the move to the state rule had been driven in part by concerns with enforcing limits. Ortiz and Colson has noted a potential conflict of interest relating to the city clerk, who both reports to councilmembers and is tasked with monitoring contributions to their campaigns. Defaulting to the state’s rule would have in turn also transferred enforcement responsibilities to the state.
“It wasn’t just campaign limits, there was also an enforcement component to it that many of our community members didn’t understand,” O’Brien Keighran said.
That concern was at least somewhat quelled after Assembly Speaker pro Tem Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, the author of the state rule, said he would be open to modifying the law to potentially allow the state to shoulder enforcement even if the city were to keep its own limit.
“This has raised interesting issues with regard to enforcement on the local level,” Mullin said. “If there are some improvements that can be made to the state law, I’m more than happy to entertain that.”
Mullin emphasized that Burlingame’s use of the law was not his intent, and he was surprised by the council’s previous direction to adopt it given the “reasonable” limits the city already had in place.
“This was designed for communities that had no limit in place,” he said. “Cities have always had the ability to enact campaign finance law that was reflective of the nature of their communities and the cost of campaign in those communities.”
In light of the potential for state enforcement of the city’s limits, some councilmembers indicated they not only no longer favored deferring to the larger state limits, but would support reducing current limits in recognition of the city’s upcoming switch to district elections, which will allow voters to choose a single councilmember to represent their district thereby reducing the scope and potentially the cost of elections.
Some also voiced support for aligning the cap on donations from individuals with the limit for organizations, as well as introducing voluntary limits on total expenditures for campaigns, something other cities have done.
“I’m crystal clear that we need to keep our limits, I would actually consider reducing them with our district elections,” Ortiz said.
Colson suggested the new limit could be $250 or $300, adding she had always thought the $4,900 limit was too high.
O’Brien Keighran, who last month queried whether smaller campaign contributions could make it more difficult to raise enough money to run a district election, said she was now also open to instead reducing limits, in addition to aligning caps for individual and organizations.
Monday’s meeting drew multiple public comments in opposition of the larger limits and close to 50 letters also against the move.
Many expressed worry that increased limits would allow those with money an unfair amount of influence on elections, or that wealthy candidates would have an advantage. Some alleged larger limits could invite corruption.
“Voters don’t want to have to worry about whether the people they’re voting for are taking enormous contributions or seem to be bought by certain interests,” said Mike Dunham, who previously ran for a seat on the City Council. The smaller limits, he said, can also help encourage new candidates to run.
In regard to enforcement concerns pending state action, City Clerk Meaghan Hassel-Shearer recommended adding specific language outlining penalties for violating contribution rules in addition to creating an online filing system for campaign statements.
Councilmember Emily Beach said she hopes the council can finalize rules ahead of next year’s election. Mullin agreed to meet with members of the council, joined by the city clerk and city attorney to discuss the enforcement modification at the state level.
“Dr. Martin Luther King famously said ‘it’s never too late to do the right thing, so I commend council for listening and I’m glad with where we’re turning out,” said Councilmember Michael Brownrigg, who has adamantly opposed the larger limits. “I look forward to this conversation on what the right limit should be in the context of district elections.”
From here, city staff will draft a new proposal for the council to discuss at a later date.
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