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      Pasadena Mayor and City Councilmembers (Photos – cityofpasadena.net)

      “Are you guys going to listen to the voices of the community?”

      By Ellen Finkelpearl

      That was the question posed passionately by Heavenly Hughes at Monday night’s Pasadena City Council meeting (October 18) on the proposed ordinance to place no limits on local campaign contributions. After watching the whole meeting over again, I think that sums it up.

      The City Council was conducting the first reading of the ordinance which would free them of the newly enacted state limit of $4900 per contributor to each Council candidate’s campaign. When the issue was first discussed in the council on August 16, there was no public comment and the council voted 6-1 in favor of drafting such an ordinance (with Councilmember Jess Rivas dissenting and Vice Mayor Andy Wilson absent.). This Monday, however, the council received 33 letters posted as public comment, heard 22 live comments and received an Open Letter signed by over 140 people and several organizations. Not one public comment supported the ordinance.

      Shocking, disturbing, appalling

      Speakers characterized the proposal variously as “shocking,” “disturbing” “appalling” “sounded like a joke,” and “out of step” with directions in nearby cities.

      Written and oral public comment did sway several councilmembers; Vice Mayor Andy Wilson sided decisively with Jess Rivas in rejecting the ordinance, while Gene Masuda seemed to agree. Steve Madison also voiced some reservations and stated that reform was needed.

      Trying to distract

      However, even after almost an hour of eloquent logic and passionate outrage during public comment, Mayor Gordo and other councilmembers continued to distract from the real aims of campaign finance reform by harping on two questionable or irrelevant claims. The first was that campaign contribution limits favor incumbents and disadvantage challengers; the second was that in municipalities where limits are set on contributions, candidates use the cover of “Independent Expenditures” which cannot be easily tracked by the public, thus creating more corruption.

      Distraction points

      On the first point, yes, some recent studies have questioned the assumption that campaign contribution limits help challengers overcome the advantage of incumbents. Others, such as the

      Brennan Center for Justice Study, “Electoral Competition and Low Contribution Limits” find that “low contribution limits and public financing substantially narrow the gap between incumbents and challengers.” As for “Independent Expenditures,” it was clear that these already are abused and also that they are tracked, some at a local and others at a state level.

      These points were a distraction. The city councilmembers were thinking about how to get elected. Their constituents were concerned with the undue influence of wealthy donors who, as some put it, could buy elections.

      We need limits far below $4900

      So, there is another sense in which the Mayor and several councilmembers are not going to listen to the voices of the community: they are trying to institute a system in which a donation by you or me of $25 or $100, or even $4900 (which they view as too low) will be dwarfed by contributions by wealthy donors or organizations like the Pasadena Police Officers Association. We need limits far below $4900 so that the voices of those with small or moderate means are not muted. We need limits so that councilmembers will not make crucial decisions based on the interests of their donors or their hopes of support from the wealthy. We need limits in the interests of fairness and equality.

      Legislative Policy Committee

      The proposed ordinance has now been sent to the council’s Legislative Policy Committee chaired by Steve Madison (with members Victor Gordo and Gene Masuda) for review and possible revision. It will be discussed, at least preliminarily, at the meeting on Tuesday October 26 at 2:00 pm. Mayor Gordo enthusiastically invited interested members of the public to attend, with a promise to reveal more details of his arguments about the difficulties of defeating an incumbent. Let’s hope that the committee also invites experts on campaign finance so that the committee will be well informed when they make their recommendations.

      Ellen Finkelpearl is a Pasadena resident and Professor at Scripps College.

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