City could cap campaign donations

May 5, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

City Council candidates could be forced to dig deeper for donations if a new cap on campaign contributions is enacted.A proposal to impose a $500 limit on contributions to City Council and mayoral races went to the council for consideration May 4, after The Press’ deadline. The spending cap includes cash and in-kind donations in the total.

Supporters said the proposal could lessen the influence of money in city politics. Opponents decried the measure as unnecessary regulation.

The measure would add campaign finance limits to the city code. Existing rules require candidates to hew to guidelines set by the King County Board of Ethics and the state Public Disclosure Commission.

During a wide-ranging discussion about the bill at the April 28 Committee-of-the-Whole Council meeting, council members asked if the proposed cap would open or close elected positions to more residents.

“Concerns have been raised about why we’re even considering doing this, and I see it as preventative medicine,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said.

A candidate is allowed to donate an unlimited amount to his or her campaign. The proposed law encourages candidates “to engage in fair play and respect the spirit of our community by not utilizing excessive amounts of self-funding during a campaign.” Attempts to limit self-financing of campaigns have not survived legal challenges.

Officials questioned whether the proposed contribution limits would limit the field to wealthy candidates who could rely on themselves for campaign cash.

Councilwoman Eileen Barber spoke against the proposal. She said the bill would amount to additional and unnecessary regulation. Barber said she could not recall any council votes that had been swayed by campaign contributions.

“I don’t believe we’ve had any particular legislation in this city in which we’ve had undue influence and a vote changed yea or nay,” she said.

Barber cited several King County cities that rely on PDC guidelines for their elections. She spoke with officials in several cities about the Issaquah bill, and said other officials did not believe additional regulations were necessary.

Councilman John Rittenhouse said the bill was modeled on a Seattle campaign finance ordinance. He said that few Washington cities imposed contribution limits, but he pointed to longtime federal contribution limits.

“As odd as it may seem, you can get a contribution for a city race that’s larger than you can get from an individual for a contribution if you are running for president of the United States,” he said.

Contributions to federal candidates are capped at $2,400 per person, per election.

The ordinance would be enforced by complaint — like the way other city code violations are brought to attention and addressed. Because the city would not be responsible for enforcement, the measure would have little or no cost to the city, Rittenhouse said.

“Concerns have been raised with respect to, I guess the phrase is, turning neighbor against neighbor,” Schaer said.

But he said the proposed process would not change the way complaints are filed.

“This system really does nothing to change the mechanism by which complaints are generated,” he said.

If passed, the proposal could have an immediate impact for four council members whose seats are up for re-election this year.

Seats held by Barber, Rittenhouse, Councilman David Kappler and Council President Maureen McCarry are open. Mayor Ava Frisinger is also up for re-election.

The legislation also aimed to redefine “election cycle” as the period stretching from Jan. 1 of an election year to 14 days after a general election. Existing rules say an election cycle ends 14 days prior to the election.

Council members said the wording change stemmed from King County’s widespread switch to vote-by-mail elections.

On the Web

Read updates as this story develops at www.issaquahpress.com.

Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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