After a second unsuccessful attempt lobbying the San Luis Obispo City Council to pursue a “democracy voucher” that would give voters city money to donate to candidates in local elections, a progressive group led by former congressional candidate Bill Ostrander is considering a ballot initiative to publicly finance campaigns.
Under Ostrander’s proposal, the democracy voucher system would give each voter registered in the city $20 to donate to municipal candidates who agree only to receive contributions through the program.
Ostrander said the vouchers would prevent corporate lobbyists, developers and other powerbrokers from trying to subvert community interests by influencing politicians’ decisions through campaign donations.
I’m really disappointed that the council wouldn’t even discuss this by putting it on its agenda. To sit up there and not say that this isn’t a city issue is astonishing.
Bill Ostrander, Citizens Congress
The city would need to allocate about $80,000 per election cycle, which could come from the city’s general fund, to cover the voucher system costs, Ostrander said.
Supporters of the democracy voucher would need to gather at least 3,918 valid signatures from city voters to put the initiative on a ballot. The initiative could go before voters in the 2018 general election or timed with this summer’s special election over a “nondiscrimination in housing policy” also put forward by a citizens’ initiative.
“We are considering a ballot initiative,” Ostrander said. “But it’s something we’ll still have to discuss and figure out.”
Despite an impassioned appeal from members of the SLO Progressives group and other community advocates at last week’s City Council meeting, council members Aaron Gomez, Carlyn Christianson and Dan Rivoire opposed a formal discussion of a democracy voucher. Councilwoman Andy Pease and Mayor Heidi Harmon said they were open to the idea of discussing the proposal at a future meeting, although Harmon expressed concerns about whether it was necessary in San Luis Obispo.
Ostrander perceived a better chance at gaining support from this year’s council, having endorsed Pease, Harmon and Gomez in the November election. He spearheaded the effort that drew about 20 supporters who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in favor of vouchers.
“I’m really disappointed that the council wouldn’t even discuss this by putting it on its agenda,” Ostrander said. “To sit up there and not say that this isn’t a city issue is astonishing. This would not have cost the city much money to implement and it would help to normalize a very important topic on a local level.”
There were a lot of speakers at Tuesday’s meeting talking about the detrimental force in politics. We don’t really have that problem here at the city level to any measurable extent.
Heidi Harmon, San Luis Obispo mayor
Harmon said she supports campaign finance reforms for national elections, but she has wrestled with the idea for San Luis Obispo.
“Even if we were to discuss this, I think we can wait and learn valuable lessons from other cities that are going through this process, like Seattle is doing right now,” Harmon said Thursday. “There were a lot of speakers at Tuesday’s meeting talking about the detrimental force in politics. We don’t really have that problem here at the city level to any measurable extent.”
Harmon raised about $15,000 in her mayoral campaign last year, compared with incumbent Jan Marx’s $21,000, and still won by a narrow margin.
Ostrander argues that even relatively small amounts of money can influence a vote.
“When somebody hands you money for a campaign, people will be inclined to feel indebted to them in some way, even if it’s a small amount of money,” Ostrander said.
Christianson, in her opposition, said she “doesn’t disagree that campaign finance reform is one of the essential issues for our country, and possibly for the county.”
“I don’t believe this is the time or the place,” Christianson said. “I do believe that sometimes San Luis Obispo shouldn’t be on the forefront, and this is one of those times. … I absolutely believe that with our resources at this stage and at this time that this is not something our community wants to see.”
Gomez said the influence of campaign donations in politics is more of a national problem and believes the city has other priorities for spending and staff resources.
Ostrander argued that a different campaign structure would encourage more people to run for office and set an example for the rest of the country.
“Instead of talking to the 50 or so donors who typically influence an election, a council candidate might talk to 750 people,” Ostrander said. “Through this process, they end up talking to many more people and become much more engaged civically.”
He said the expenditure would be a small amount of money for a city with a budget of about $70 million per year, though council members noted that hundreds of residents lobbied for city allocations for a variety of needs at the city’s budget goal-setting process in January.
Clarification: The headline on this story has been updated.