Commission aims for more transparency in elections

The Fair Campaign Practices Commission will meet at the North Berkeley Senior Center

Berkeley’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission will consider changes to local campaign laws on Thursday that members hope will bring greater transparency to election finances.

The commission will consider adding new restrictions on independent committees, which are defined as groups spending money independently rather than in coordination with a candidate or measure. While the 1974 Berkeley Election Reform Act prohibits businesses from contributing to a candidate, and limits individuals to a $250 donation, businesses and other interested parties can set up separate independent committees that accept unlimited donations. The independent committees can then use those funds in support of ballot measures and candidates.

The proposed law would require any independent committee spending $1,000 or more on a ballot measure to notify the City Clerk’s office of that expenditure within 24 hours. The City Clerk would then be required to post that expenditure online within two business days, and to alert those affected by the expenditure. The law would apply 40 days prior to an election.

“It keeps things from being totally under the radar,” said Steve Wollmer, chair of the Fair Campaign Practices Commission. “This is to provide notice that there is an actor in a campaign who people might not be aware of. This is a way to know who is doing what.”

The issue came to the FCPC’s attention in 2006, when the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce’s PAC spent more than $100,000 in the November election, said Wollmer. But the PAC filed its campaign reports with Alameda County rather than with the city of Berkeley, so many Berkeley voters were not aware of the PAC’s donations. The state Fair Political Practices Commission ruled in 2007 that the Chamber PAC must file its campaign reports with Berkeley, not the county.

The Fair Campaign Practices Commission will meet at 7:00 pm on Jan. 19 at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Avenue, Classroom C.

The commission will also consider requiring independent committees and initiative committees to list their top four contributors who donated more than $250 on all mailings, ads, and door hangers. There are no restrictions on how much anyone can donate to those types of committees.

The commission will also consider changing a basic tenet of the Berkeley Election Reform Act: requiring the city to publish all campaign contributions of more than $50 in a local newspaper at least once in the week before an election. The publication must be “cost-effective,” according to BERA.

With the demise of the printed edition of the Daily Planet and the circulation priorities of the Daily Californian (which is geared mostly toward the students, faculty and staff at UC), there is no longer an obvious general interest print publication in Berkeley, said Wollmer.

The proposed change in the law would allow Berkeley to post campaign contribution reports on the city website and place ads in newspapers or online announcing where people can read the reports. The information would still be available in hard copy at the City Clerk’s office. Wollmer estimated that the change would also save the city $1,500 a year.

The commission will also consider requiring all candidates and initiative campaigns to file contribution reports electronically rather than in hard copy. But this requirement would not take effect until the 2014 election, said Wollmer.

If the FCPC adopts these provisions on Thursday, they still must be approved by the City Council. The council would hold a public meeting before passing anything into law.

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  • Bruce Love

    Is this accurate?  I think there is a mistake:

    While the 1974 Berkeley Election Reform Act prohibits businesses from
    contributing to a candidate, and limits individuals to a $250 donation,
    businesses and other interested parties can set up separate independent
    committees that accept unlimited donations. They can then make
    donations to ballot measures and candidates from those independent
    committees.

    I think that says that the independent committees collect unlimited sums and then donate them to candidate or measure campaigns.   Isn’t it rather that the independents collect their donations and then make independent electioneering expenditures?

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    That is what I thought I said. Individuals can donate to any candidate but up to a maximum of $250. However, you or I can set up an independent PAC that has not donation limits. That PAC can use the funds in any way as long as it does so independently, not in coordination with a candidate. (Like the new super PACs) I will clarify to say they can use the money in support of, rather than donating to …

  • libraterian

    Hopefully this will make more obvious the practice of public employee unions engorging themselves on bond issues and special taxes under guises such as “…it’s for the Kids!” of “…Support your Fire Fighters!”