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Dollars and sense: A publicly financed election program is scheduled to go before the SLO City Council

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Imagine being able to donate money to a political campaign without damaging your pocketbook. 

That’s a core principle in a public election-financing proposal going before the San Luis Obispo City Council for review on March 15. Should the council eventually adopt it, San Luis Obispo would be only the second city, after Seattle, to do so.

The proposed “Integrity in our Elections Ordinance” is spearheaded by Bill Ostrander, local developer, farmer, 24th Congressional District candidate, and director of the nonprofit group Citizen’s Congress.

Ostrander said this would be a small step toward bigger aims of limiting the influence money has on the political process.

“We know that money is being put before the larger community interest,” he said. 

That toxic and corrupt influence brought with money, Ostrander said, has decoupled the current political system from its democratic design.

“All of the things that we’re taught in civics class in school, our unique brand that is being exported around the world, is not actually accurate,” he said.

As currently proposed, the ordinance would create a program that distributes a “democracy voucher” to all the city residents who are registered to vote. The voucher would function like a debit card, containing $20 that can be donated to the City Council or mayoral candidate of choice. Candidates who opt in to receive those funds would be restricted to using only those funds. The program would be optional because the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to completely ban privately financed elections.

Ostrander said the program would require candidates to raise money by contacting several small donors instead of a few large donors, creating an exchange that makes candidates more beholden to voters, and less to big money interests. By his calculations, City Council candidates in San Luis Obispo are funded on average by 53 families. If those candidates were only able to get a maximum of $20 per supporter, they’d need to extend that list into the hundreds.

“Statistically we have a very, very, very small number of people that, in a sense, elects who runs for office,” he said, calling that “disproportionate representation.”

Ostrander is not saying that there is necessarily a major problem with how San Luis Obispo City Council elections are financed—currently, the city has capped maximum donations at $300—nor is he asserting that council members are corrupt.

He is saying, however, that it would enhance the democratic process by allowing people to run for office and for voters to have an impact in ways not bound by requisite financial resources.

“When we have candidates that are financed by the public, when a measure comes up, when a development project comes forward, we have less reason to expect that contributions to that candidate has an influence on the outcome,” he said.

The program as proposed has three core elements: the democracy vouchers, a requirement that any person or group making independent expenditures above $500 disclose the source of the money, and the creation of an ethics commission. 

The independent expenditure disclosure requirement would apply to any money that’s used independently (not by or for one particular candidate) to sway the election. Currently, there are no limits on independent expenditures, and the sources of the funds aren’t required to be disclosed. That precedent allows untraceable so-called “dark money” to pour into elections, including local and state elections, from Super PACs (political action committee).

SLO Assistant City Attorney Jon Ansolabehere said there would be initial start-up and ongoing operational costs. In addition, SLO would need enough funds to cover $20 vouchers for the city’s 23,092 registered voters. Not all of that approximately $460,000 would be spent, he said, because not every voter will participate, but it must still be available. Ansolabehere said that an estimation of the program’s total cost is still under review and will be available in the staff report preceding the March 15 meeting.

While Ostrander recognizes that some may be skeptical, he thinks that it’s a valuable investment.

“It’s hard to understand someone saying that we can’t afford it,” he said. “The city will spend $450,000 just to revitalize and remodel our public restrooms.”

Some think that particular comparison, however, is one of apples and oranges.

“People want us to spend money on the basics, they don’t want us spending money on political projects,” said Al Fonzi, chair of the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County. “You’re forcing people to pay for campaigns and issues that they don’t believe in.”

Already, too many strict election rules make it difficult for everyday, independent citizens to run, Fonzi said. He also noted that the program isn’t mandatory, and it wouldn’t go far enough, in part because existing limits restrict everything except for a candidate’s use of their own money.

“You’re simply putting shackles on some people and not putting them on others,” he said.

Still, Ostrander thinks this would be an important step in putting the “d” back democracy.

“It provides candidates with an opportunity to have a discussion about the ideas alone, not whether you can actually have the discussion because you have enough money,” he said. “You can’t just take money out of it, we simply must dilute its influence.” 

 

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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