Op-ed: Let’s amplify local voices in Berkeley City Hall

By Woody Little

Woody Little is co-president of Common Cause of Berkeley.

Ask any elected official how much time they spend on fundraising and I’d be willing to bet most respond with, “too much.” In Berkeley, seven of the eight last city council elections went to the candidate who raised the most money, and so did the last mayoral election. When Berkeley candidates have to spend so much time raising money, they have less time to listen to ordinary citizens.

So what’s the problem with high-cost campaigns anyway? Don’t candidates need money to get their message out?

Yes. But when elections are determined by fundraising alone, communities pay the price. And when the perception is that only money matters in campaigns, it erodes public faith in government. With voter turnout at historic lows, we need to do everything we can to increase participation.

What if I told you there was a proposal to encourage local candidates to spend more time talking to voters and less time dialing for dollars? What if this proposal could diversify the local donor pool, encourage more voters to participate and make City Council more responsive to the citizens they are elected to serve?

That’s the power of the Berkeley Fair Elections Act, which would place a measure on the 2016 ballot and let voters decide if they want to create a small donor public financing system for the City of Berkeley.

If the measure passes, it would allow qualifying candidates to run for office without relying on large amounts of private funds. If a local candidate chooses to participate in the program and qualifies for public funds, the candidate is eligible to receive $6 in public funds for every $1 collected in small contributions. Participating candidates may only accept donations from real people who live in the City of Berkeley. Donors may give only $50 or less and candidates may not spend more than $50 personally on their campaign.

Now I know what you are thinking, how does spending public money on elections going to solve the problem? Well here’s how it works:

First, the program is completely voluntary. These funds will be reserved for candidates who choose to participate in the program.

Second, candidates must meet a set of requirements to receive public funds. After qualifying for the ballot, each candidate who wishes to participate must collect 30 contributions of at least $10 and not more than $50, amounting to a total of at least $500 in small donations. This establishes community support and prevents just anyone from wasting public money.

Third, each candidate can only receive a limited amount of public money. In the current proposal, candidates for mayor are eligible to receive up to $100,000 and City Council candidates up to $40,000. These maximum amounts are based on historical campaign expenditures and reflect the amount of money required to run a viable campaign in Berkeley.

Fourth, Fair Elections candidates will spend less time raising money, leaving more time for community outreach, listening to voters and crafting community-based solutions. Under the current system, candidates must raise at least 800 contributions in increments of $50 or less in order to accumulate $40,000. Under the Fair Elections system, a $50 private donation is matched with $300 in public funds meaning that candidates only have to get 114 people to donate $50 in order to accumulate the same $40,000.

Fifth, no new taxes are needed to fund the Fair Elections program. Each year, about $460,000, less than 0.3% of the city budget, will be allocated from the General Fund into the Fair Elections Fund. This is a small price to pay given the potential benefits of a more responsive, more accountable Berkeley City Hall.

Lastly, the Berkeley Fair Elections Act was based off of existing programs in Los Angeles and New York City. These small donor matching funds programs have been around for decades and have successfully incentivized candidates to seek out small donations from a more diverse pool of donors.

Berkeley tried to pass public financing in 2004 and it lost narrowly. That’s why we need your help. We are building a broad coalition of support, reaching out to community organizations, neighborhood associations, students and the general public to discuss the proposal, listen to feedback and incorporate improvements.

California Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, CALPIRG, Berkeley Citizen Action, Maplight, and the Associated Students of the University of California and more than 250 individuals have all pledged their support. But we need to hear from you.

Join us on Tuesday Nov. 10 at the Longfellow Middle School Auditorium and tell City Council to let the voters decide our future by voting to place the Fair Elections Act on the ballot in 2016.  Together we have the power to amplify local voices and empower candidates to run small donor campaigns.

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