• GUEST OPINION

      A red brick dome with $100 bill behind it

      Pasadena City Hall Dome (Photo – Design Dept. ⒸColoradoBlvd.net)

      This Monday (October 18), the Pasadena City Council will conduct a “first reading” of a new ordinance that would establish no limits on campaign contributions for the offices of Pasadena Mayor and City Council.

      By Ellen Finkelpearl and Ryan Bell

      When the item was first introduced on August 16, the Mayor and Council voted 6-1 (with one absence) to codify the longstanding practice in the city that “there is no limit on local campaign contributions.”

      This is shocking, and we urge the Mayor and City Council to reconsider. Instead, there should be an ordinance setting reasonable limits on campaign contributions.

      From $4900 to..?

      To be clear, this year the California legislature established a limit for state and county elections of $4900 per contributor (AB 571), with the stipulation that cities may establish their own limits. In other words, the majority of the Pasadena City Council apparently found $4900 unreasonably low; they would like to clear the way for much larger donations to their campaigns.

      Money in politics

      By now, we are all well aware of the pernicious power of money in politics. In a democratic society, wealthy donors and corporations should not have the ability to, in effect, buy elections and influence policy through large donations. Limiting contributions to a dollar amount that ordinary citizens can donate restores fairness to the political system, levels the playing field, and creates transparency. Such limits would also permit a broader base of candidates to compete for these offices–those without connections to big money.

      Campaign contribution limits

      Last year, Alhambra citizens voted overwhelmingly (over 76%) to limit local campaign contributions to $250 per contributing entity (Measure V). When given the chance to participate in such decisions, voters are clear that they favor campaign contribution limits.  Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, “77% of Americans say there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend on campaigns.”

      Great income disparity!

      Pasadena is a city of great income disparity. This ordinance would aggravate the problems faced by the city by keeping power in the hands of the wealthy. We call on the Mayor and City Council to work to create a truly inclusive and participatory community by, as a start, limiting campaign finance contributions.

      People may post a public comment on the matter or speak live at Monday’s meeting (click for link).

      Ellen Finkelpearl is a Pasadena resident and Professor at Scripps College. Ryan Bell is a Pasadena resident and a tenant activist.


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      Contributor

      Comments

      1. Melissa Michelsona says:

        Community’s Open Letter to Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo and City Councilmembers
        to lead Pasadena’s Fight for a Truly Inclusive Government by Implementing Urgently Needed Campaign Finance Reform

        We, the undersigned local community leaders, advocates, and residents respectfully urge Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo and Pasadena’s Councilmembers to pass crucially needed campaign finance reform to fulfill Mayor Gordo’s promise of ensuring Pasadena’s “local city government is responsive…and accountable to residents,” and exemplifies “a Pasadena that truly listens, is inclusive of everyone, [and] stands with our families, our seniors, and our youth.”

        Specifically, we call on Mayor Gordo and Councilmembers to:
        (i) RESCIND the Council’s August 16 vote instructing the preparation of an ordinance providing for unlimited campaign contributions from donors to city candidates (exploiting a loophole in the default state limit this year of $4,900 per contributor to city candidates); and
        (ii) PLACE reasonable per-contributor limits on direct funding of local campaigns, in keeping with sensible surrounding cities like Los Angeles, Alhambra, and South Pasadena, as well as dozens of local jurisdictions across Southern California. (For example, Los Angeles with a population of almost 4 million has a $800 limit as of 2020, in contrast to Pasadena with a population of about 140,000.)

        Our request is based on the following:

        The City of Pasadena is one of the two most unequal cities in California, with an ever widening economic divide. Moneyed interests have far too much sway in Pasadena politics, which we believe has led to questionable city policies and unequal representation.

        We are in agreement with the Campaign Legal Center which states:
        “The First Amendment guarantees every American the right to participate fully in the political process. It is well-known that the dependence of political candidates on wealthy special interests is a serious flaw in our political system, and makes elected officials responsive to their large donors rather than to the public. The tremendous power of special interest money in politics often drowns out the voice of everyday Americans, threatens our First Amendment freedoms, and erodes the foundations of our entire democracy.”
        The Center also said that to restore fairness to our political system, the passing and enforcing of strong campaign finance reforms that help guarantee a democracy responsive to the people is urgently needed, including placing reasonable limits on funding of campaigns, complete transparency of campaign spending, and public financing of elections. (Campaign Legal Center 2020; Brennan Center 2018; Public Citizen 2020; Common Cause 2016)

        It is unreasonable and ethically suspect that any city should have contribution limits higher than that imposed upon state candidates. The California Legislature adopted state ethics law AB 571 effective January 1, 2021 imposing state contribution limits for state elections as default limits for county and city elections, with the ability for local jurisdictions to establish different limits. The default state limit this year is $4,900 per contributor to city candidates.

        When given the chance to participate democratically in setting campaign finance limits, citizens are clear that they want limits, and understand the danger of the undue influence of wealthy donors. After a citywide referendum, sister city Alhambra voted overwhelmingly (by over 76%) last year to adopt comprehensive campaign finance reform with an inflation-adjusted local campaign contribution limit of $250 for candidates running in by-district elections. There are other California cities with similar or lower donor limits, which is often based on a municipality’s size and electoral format.

        We are alarmed that Pasadena voted on August 16 to place no dollar limits on local campaign contributions, with a first reading of the ordinance to be conducted October 18 (and codification effective after two readings).

        Pasadena City Council is unjustified in claiming contribution limits for state candidates are too low for Pasadena Mayoral and City Council candidates. Rather, stricter limits would (i) provide incentives to candidates to build a broader base of smaller contributors to be viable; (ii) empower smaller donors as well as expand the pool of potential candidates to include those with no ties to big money thus enabling wider representation among the populace; and (iii) induce greater candidate-constituent interaction and messaging, as opposed to the current practice of blanketing a district with cookie-cutter political mailers.

        It’s time now for Mayor Victor Gordo and Pasadena Councilmembers to lead the fight for a truly inclusive local city government. We urge you, Mayor Gordo and Councilmembers, to stand with our families and communities in urgently drafting and voting on a municipal ordinance to place reasonable limits per contributor on funding of local campaigns in Pasadena, following the lead of dozens of other Southern California cities. Doing so would engender trust in Pasadena city leaders and candidates and help create a City that is truly more inclusive of everyone.

        In Hope for the Welfare of Our City and Nation,

      2. Bev Ashley says:

        I guess that higher limits are suggested because politicians are so honest that no limit at all is needed. What other reason could there be?

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