Council considers limit on campaign donations

May 12, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Candidates for city offices could face new limits to donations in the next election. Legislation to limit contributions to $500 from a single party will be considered by the City Council May 18.The measure would limit contributions to City Council and mayoral candidates. The spending cap includes cash and in-kind donations in the total.

During their May 4 meeting, council members directed city staffers to prepare a campaign finance ordinance.

With campaigns for mayor and four council seats about to begin, council members debated the impact of the proposed bill. The legislation would go into effect June 1 — four days before the June 5 filing deadline for candidates.

Though 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,” the bill does not attempt to regulate self-financing. A candidate is allowed to donate an unlimited amount to his or her campaign. Attempts to cap self-financing of campaigns have not survived legal challenges.

Councilman John Rittenhouse said the bill would help to ensure free and fair elections.

“Campaign finance reform measures taking the form of mandatory candidate contribution limits have been adopted in the city of Seattle, and similar restrictions have been in place at the county, state and federal levels for quite some time,” he said.

Councilwoman Eileen Barber offered an amendment to the bill to include the name, address and telephone number of a person who files a complaint against a candidate. Her colleagues adopted the amendment in a 6-1 vote. Councilman Joshua Schaer dissented.

“Saying that there will be follow-up if we get that information creates even more work and even more efforts on the part of city staff,” Schaer said. “This ordinance is designed to minimize the amount of time that city staff needs to spend.”

Councilman Fred Butler spoke in favor of the amendment: “I see a value in this, so that it will prevent people from making unfounded, unjust allegations.”

The ordinance would be enforced by complaint in a way similar to how other city code violations are brought to attention and addressed.

Butler said the amendment could cut the number of unfounded complaints and reduce the workload for the city code compliance officer, who would be charged with responding to the complaints.

City Code Compliance Officer Michele Forkner said last week she had not yet been briefed about the proposed bill.

The bill would add campaign finance language 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.

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

Resident Bill Werner said the proposed regulation was unnecessary. During the public comment portion of the meeting, he said elected officials should instead hold themselves to a higher ethical standard.

“A few weeks ago, I spoke to this council about the so-called campaign finance reform bill, which to me only gives lip service to ethics,” Werner said. “It does not address fundamental ethical lapses, which have gone unchecked in this city for decades.”

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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