Council caps campaign contributions at $500

June 2, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

New city campaign finance rules went into effect June 1 — just as candidates began filing to run for mayor and four City Council seats.With the start of campaign season two weeks away, the City Council voted May 18 to limit campaign contributions to $500 from a single party. The cap includes both cash and in-kind donations in the total. The legislation sets the first city campaign finance rules for Issaquah.

Council members ended months of debate about the measure with their decision. Before the 5-1 vote, Councilman Joshua Schaer noted the importance of dollars for candidates seeking office. He said fewer hurdles exist for candidates flush with campaign cash.

“Reaching voters is very important,” he said. “You can send out more mailers, you can put up more signs — though I wish people wouldn’t — and you can do a lot more things with money in the bank.”

Proponents said they hoped the limit would broaden the ranks of people seeking public office.

“We all have to reach the same number of people, and I think this helps level the playing field,” Council President Maureen McCarry said.

Councilwoman Eileen Barber, who cast the dissenting vote, said the bill amounted to excessive and unnecessary regulation. As council members considered the bill during the last several weeks, she raised questions about creating additional regulations. Barber outlined her concerns during the debate before the vote.

“I want to once again express my concerns about implementing excess regulation, in my opinion, as a preventative measure,” she said. “We’ve not outlined any identifiable concerns or problems that we’ve had by any member of this particular council or previous councils in regards to campaign contributions.”

Schaer said the campaign finance bill was one of the most divisive issues he had encountered as a council member — at least among his colleagues.

“Surprisingly, for being this divisive in my mind, we’ve had very minimal public feedback,” he said.

Though Schaer voted in favor of the measure, he said he shared some of Barber’s reservations about the bill. He said officials could later tweak the ordinance if provisions were not a good fit.

“I believe it’s worth a shot and I’ll be supporting it,” he said.

Councilman John Rittenhouse, the main proponent of the legislation, did not attend the meeting due to illness.

Councilman Fred Butler said he did not receive any e-mail from constituents about the finance bill.

“I’m amazed at the amount of time and effort that has gone into this also, addressing a non problem,” he said.

As the bill wended through committee meetings, council members also weighed the influence of money from advocacy and political groups on municipal races. During the 2005 election, the King County Republican Party donated heavily to City Council candidates — including Barber — though the council posts are nonpartisan.

Proponents also noted how donors could contribute more to a council candidate than they could give to a presidential candidate. Federal campaign donations are capped at $2,400.

The bill added language to the city code about the cap and enforcement against violations. The new ordinance will be enforced by complaint in a way similar to how other city code violations are brought to attention and addressed. City Code Compliance Officer Michele Forkner will be responsible for responding to complaints.

Candidates in past elections were required to follow guidelines set by the King County Board of Ethics and the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Seats held by Barber, McCarry, Rittenhouse and Councilman David Kappler are open in the coming election. Barber and McCarry have announced their intention to seek re-election.

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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