Future candidates for Fountain Valley City Council can accept higher campaign contributions, the first such increase approved by city officials since 1986.

The City Council at a late March meeting gave initial approval for an ordinance that would increase the limit from $500 to $1,372 per donor per election cycle in a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Kim Constantine and Councilmember Patrick Harper voting against it. 

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While the council members in the majority expressed hope that a higher limit would give candidates running against incumbents to campaign more equitably, some residents and the council members in the minority fear larger donations would be unnecessary and further increase fundraising disparities in elections.

The $500 limit was substantially lower than that permitted under state law which went into effect on Jan. 1. Now, California limits campaign contributions to $5,500 per person or political party per election, but cities are able to set their own limits without exceeding the maximum allowed under state law.

Other cities in Orange County have also adopted new campaign donation limits. Last December, the Huntington Beach City Council increased campaign contribution limits for elected city officials from $620 to $4,900, defaulting to the state limit at the time. The Aliso Viejo City Council, meanwhile, opted to cap campaign contributions at $1,000 per election per donor. 

Fountain Valley was poised to consider how to alter its campaign contribution due to the Jan. 1 law, according to a city staff report. Aside from capping contributions at $5,500, the law also mandates any council member who receives a donation of $250 or greater to report the donation and recuse themselves for a 12-month period from taking action on any matter concerning the donor, according to City Attorney Colin Burns.

Those opposed to raising the contributions limit feared the ordinance would compromise the integrity of future city council elections, but Burns said he believes that the law would prohibit donors from influencing future council action. 

Mayor Pro Tem Glenn Grandis, who stated he was previously against raising contribution limits, said the state law changed his opinion.

“I think most of us will not accept donations from anything that could potentially be brought before us,” said Grandis.

The state’s new campaign donations law, however, was not the only reason Fountain Valley was considering raising the limit.

“The biggest issue is inflation,” Burns said at the March City Council meeting. “$500 in 2023 has the same purchasing power that $182 had in 1986. To put it another way, it takes $1,372 to buy what $500 could buy in 1986.”

Councilmember Jim Cunneen agreed inflation was a major factor in him voting in favor of the ordinance.

“Just to print a 6½-by-9-inch card to go to the entire city, which was 19,239 homes, that cost was $5,421. That’s just one small mailer one time,” Cunneen said.

According to the California State Board of Equalization, the consumer price index increased by 7.274% in the last year, the highest increase in a single year since 1982. Last summer, the United States experienced record inflation rates due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the majority of the Fountain Valley City Council stated increasing the contribution limits will make elections more equitable, some residents said they felt the opposite was true.

Resident Katy Wright told the council she would love to see the campaign contribution limit as low as $100. 

“This is just too lopsided for candidates who have connections. How about new people who want to get in the door who could really do wonders for the city but they don’t have the name recognition?” Wright asked.

She added: “Too many people vote on the name and face recognition which is bought and paid for by big money.”

In voting against the new limits, Mayor Constantine said she felt raising them was unnecessary. 

“We don’t need big money in the city. I was elected in 2018 and I spent $970… no signs, no ads, no calls, no mailers,” she said.

Councilmember Harper also said the $1,372 campaign limit was too high and proposed setting the limit at $1,000, but got no second for his motion. 

The newly-adjusted campaign contribution limits will go into effect 30 days after a final vote on the ordinance slated for April 4.

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