A ballot initiative is being put forth in Alhambra by the nonprofit 501(c)(4), Grassroots Alhambra In Action, a sister organization of Grassroots Alhambra, to establish campaign finance laws for local elections and institute by-district City Council elections.
By Cheryl Cabot
Concerned that developers and other moneyed interests were having too much influence on City elections, Grassroots Alhambra in Action decided to pursue a ballot initiative that would limit the amount of money a person or entity could give to a city council candidate. If passed, it would be a charter amendment, meaning it cannot be changed by a City Council vote, but would be codified into the City Charter.
Currently in Alhambra, campaign donors can give unlimited contributions to candidates for municipal office. If passed, the initiative would limit campaign contributions from people and entities to $250 to a city council candidate. Businesses, corporations, LLCs, etc., and their owners would be treated as one “person.” There are other things proposed in the initiative as well. According to the Ballot Title and Summary prepared by the City Attorney: “loans to campaigns are also subject to the $250 limit except commercial loans on standard terms; a candidate may loan their own campaign up to $10,000; a candidate’s campaign finance reports (Form 460s) must be posted on the City’s website; there is an 8 month fundraising window; and city councilmembers can only keep $5,000 in their campaign accounts once elected until their fundraising window kicks in again.”
The other major portion of the initiative is to change the way citizens of Alhambra vote for City Council members. Currently, Alhambra City Councilmembers are elected through an at-large voting system, which means everyone in the city gets to vote for every city council member in each district.
A change to by-district elections means residents may only vote for the Council representative of the district in which they reside and may not vote for candidates in other districts.
Board member of Grassroots Alhambra in Action Sean McMorris says:
We believe moving to a by-district voting system will greatly decrease the cost of running for city council by decreasing the area a candidate must campaign in, and result in city councilmembers who better understand the needs of the residents of their district. We hope that this, in conjunction with donor limits, will encourage more candidates to run for city council.
Preventing marginalization of minority votes
Under Alhambra’s current system of voting, a candidate could win his district, but lose the election because their opponent gained more votes overall from other districts. By-district elections would prevent that type of district vote dilution. McMorris added that it would also prevent the marginalization of minority votes, which can happen in an at-large system. “Cities across California with at-large voting systems are getting sued under the California Voting Rights Act because minorities are under-represented on those cities’ city councils.”
Eric Sunada, a founding member of Grassroots Alhambra and advocate for campaign finance reform and by-district elections, stated, “We have a system in Alhambra that benefits a select few at the expense of many, all under the guise of representative government. Under the current system of voting, candidates representing underserved areas can be voted in by outsiders who are allowed unlimited financial backing.”
Mark Nisall, who ran for Alhambra City Council in 2016, had this to say about unlimited campaign contributions, “As a city council candidate, my opponent received large campaign contributions from builders, developers, real estate interests and city contractor seeking to acquire influence at City Hall, including $5,000 from a single developer.
“This ‘pay-for-play’ system is a corrupt process and a growing cancer on our democratic system of government. As a grass roots candidate, with limited financial resources, I had virtually no chance to win,” Nisall continued. “Campaign finance and election reform in Alhambra and elsewhere will help break this endless pattern and practice of corruptive influences that delegitimize the decisions made by our local government officials.”
Moneyed interests and questionable city policies
Recently, a workshop was held for volunteer petition circulators to explain the process for collecting signatures to qualify the measure for the local ballot. Karla Zombro, Field Director for California Calls and an Alhambra resident, gave a tutorial on the correct and most effective way to collect signatures on the petition.
“Remember,” Zombro said, “remind potential signers that their signature only helps put the initiative on the ballot so it can be voted on. Their signing the petition does not make it law.”
The proponents of the initiative will need to collect signatures from 15% of registered voters in Alhambra, or about 6,100 signatures to qualify the measure on the ballot. “But we will have to go well over that number,” says McMorris, “because some signatures will be disqualified for a number of reasons.” Grassroots Alhambra in Action and its volunteers get 180 days to collect the signatures.
When asked why Grassroots Alhambra in Action is doing this, McMorris said, “Many of our members and residents across the city feel that moneyed interests have far too much sway in Alhambra politics, which we believe has led to questionable city policies and unequal representation.”
McMorris went on to add, “We are not introducing anything radical here. There are already over 100 California cities with donor limits and many cities the size of Alhambra have by-district voting systems. It’s no different than how we elect our county, state, and federal leaders. It’s just common sense reform that we believe will level the playing field, create better representation, and decrease the likelihood of corruption.”
All Alhambra City Councilmembers and candidates declined to comment.
You can read what’s in the Alhambra ballot initiative here.
Cheryl Cabot lives in San Gabriel. She’s a retired school teacher, freelance writer, political activist, grandmother and avid lawn bowler.
> Editor’s note: Cheryl Cabot is a member of Grassroots Alhambra. CC members and candidates were offered the chance to respond on two (2) different occasions, but did not.
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