Early plans for a fresh new elections ordinance in San Luis Obispo may be killed weeks after a key approval.
The San Luis Obispo City Council voted 3-2 on March 15 to begin drafting an ordinance that would create a public financing option for candidates, an ethics board, and new rules for independent campaign expenditures. The group Citizens’ Congress first pitched the ordinance in August, saying it would empower both candidates and voters and help reduce money’s influence in politics.
Councilmembers Dan Carpenter, John Ashbaugh, and Dan Rivoire supported the ordinance, while Mayor Jan Marx and Councilmember Carlyn Christianson were critical of it. But on March 24, Carpenter announced that he will revoke his support, citing an outpouring of opposition following the March 15 vote.
“My goal for supporting this direction that evening was to level the playing field so more candidates would be encouraged to participate in our elected representative process,” Carpenter wrote in a statement to local media. “I was wrong to think this was the answer to achieving that goal and I will oppose this proposed ordinance when it returns for further council consideration. In the hours and days following the decision, I heard from many citizens throughout the community with a primary concern about the inappropriate use of taxpayer resources for candidates.”
Carpenter told New Times that during the next council meeting on April 5, he’ll ask his colleagues to reconsider their earlier approval. Should the majority support such reconsideration, the item would be agendized for a later meeting, possibly as soon as April 19. Marx and Christianson both told New Times they’ll likely support the move.
Bill Ostrander, director of Citizens’ Congress and a current 24th congressional district candidate, said that until now, Carpenter showed support for the ordinance.
“[Carpenter] recognizes this creates the opportunity for citizens to participate in our democracy and our government,” Ostrander said.
Marx and Christianson opposed pursuing the ordinance because they weren’t sure if a majority of city voters wanted such reform—Marx recommended a ballot referendum instead of a council vote—and they didn’t see enough need to justify more staff costs. San Luis Obispo has laws limiting individual campaign contributions to $300.
At the March 15 council meeting, Marx asked Carpenter why he supported the ordinance.
“People elected me to lead,” Carpenter responded. “This allows more people to participate. That’s what I hear when I have my ear to the ground—more people want to participate and don’t have the opportunity.”
Carpenter told New Times that after that vote, he received correspondence from upwards of 80 to 100 people objecting, citing cost and expressing worries that their tax dollars might fund candidates whom they didn’t support.
The program’s cost would vary depending on voter participation, and could total into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Ostrander said those costs have been exaggerated, and that Carpenter—one of two challengers taking on SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill in the 3rd District Supervisor race—is being motivated by politics.
“What we have here is a situation where democracy is being thwarted by, forgive me, but I feel by personal ambition in [the supervisor] race,” Ostrander said. “He is neither leading nor following, he is confusing the issue.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay