In a democracy, the integrity of the election process is the bedrock of our freedom. As a nation of laws, citizens depend on the assumption that government will enforce the laws on the books equally, without fear or favor.
Recent events have convinced me that to protect the integrity of the political process in our city, significant reform is required.
For decades, candidates for city council faithfully adhered to the campaign contribution limits, which were $1,100 per person during the last election cycle. In 2014, one candidate reported on his own campaign reports that he had accepted contributions from two sources that exceeded the limits. In one case, the city clerk advised him he was in violation and in another a citizen filed a complaint with the city attorney. In both cases, the candidate acknowledged the violation and amended his report after the fact to return the excess donations. I think every member of the city council was surprised and shocked when the city attorney took the position that because of some awkward wording in the ordinance, he lacked the authority to enforce the city’s laws on campaign limits. Instead, the resident was told to take his complaint to the District Attorney where enforcement of municipal laws is an unusual and low priority task. Laws that cannot be enforced invite abuse and justice demands that any violation of our election laws be thoroughly and fairly investigated and resolved.
This is a serious matter since the law requires the removal from office for violations of the contribution limits. Accordingly, I will propose an amendment to this law, giving the city attorney full power to enforce the provisions of our campaign laws and providing a mechanism for the appointment of a special prosecutor where conflicts of interest may exist. Contribution limits are only effective if all candidates follow them.
An even more insidious circumvention of our campaign limits however involved the use of “slate mail committees” to allow candidates to violate the limits. Nearly $100,000 was spent by the “Neighborhood Preservation Coalition”, in support of the winning candidates in the 2014 election. Unlike “independent expenditures” that cannot be coordinated with the candidates or their campaign managers, the Coalition was organized by Dave Ellis, campaign manager for Team Newport and supported with major donations from the candidates themselves. It was also funded with major five figure donations from developers, property owners and others with significant business before the city council. Not surprisingly, many of these donors received highly economically beneficial decisions from the new city council during the year following the election. Contribution limits have no meaning or effect of they can be circumvented through the use of slate mail by combining candidates and allowing unlimited contributions. I will propose that any donation to a slate mail committee count as a donation to the supported candidates on a pro rata basis for purposes of our campaign contribution laws.
When I started on the city council a decade ago, candidates did not start fundraising until the year of the election. When the election was over, some funds were raised in the immediate weeks following the election but by the end of December, the campaigning stopped and everyone focused on the issues facing the city. This year however we have new councilmembers actively raising money for the 2018 campaign, nearly four years away, almost entirely from people with business before the city council. Also for the first time ever, we have council members apparently retaining consultants to talk to the press on their behalf and providing ongoing political strategy. With incumbents raising money so far ahead of the election, it will encourage challengers to also start years early, making for a never-ending campaign environment. The result will be to drag our community into the swamp that represents local politics in our neighboring cities. I will propose that we prohibit fundraising by all candidates in non-election years except for the first six months following the election so that debt may be retired. Of course the political consultants who get paid to manufacture discontent in our community will oppose this.
Finally, some of the campaign consultants also lobby the council on behalf of a variety of special interests. Often, their involvement is hidden from residents who have no idea that a council member’s campaign consultant is also a lobbyist on behalf of a project in the city. I propose that Newport Beach follow the example of Orange County and many other cities by requiring lobbyists to register with the city and be publicly disclosed. Responsible professional advocates have told me they support the move because it helps maintain the integrity of the system.
The past election saw one of the lowest voter turnouts in history. A few special interests spent nearly $1 million to take control of the city council. Unless we want to move to a system of boss rule by people who characterize themselves as “the eighth councilman” pull puppet strings from the sidelines, and view the city as a vehicle for their own economic enrichment, all of us must demand that our laws be enforced, the process be protected and that our elected officials be accountable to the people, not the political consultants.
Keith Curry is a Newport Beach Councilmember and former mayor.
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