SLO council reverses itself, drops proposed public funding of local political campaigns

San Luis Obispo City Council Member Dan Carpenter is running for District 3 County Board of Supervisors.
San Luis Obispo City Council Member Dan Carpenter is running for District 3 County Board of Supervisors. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In a reversal from its position a month ago, the San Luis Obispo City Council has decided not to pursue a “democracy voucher” that would give voters public money to donate to local political campaigns.

On Tuesday, the council voted 3-2, with Councilmen John Ashbaugh and Dan Rivoire dissenting, to direct staff not to take any further action on the idea. Councilman Dan Carpenter, who had voted on March 15 to direct staff to write an ordinance for public financing of local elections, changed his mind after that vote. Two weeks ago, he asked the council to put the issue back on an agenda for reconsideration.

A few residents voiced frustration that Carpenter changed his mind on the program.

“The night it was passed, we heard a very eloquent statement about being a leader,” San Luis Obispo resident Lanyce Mills said. “Now I find that being a leader means changing your mind when you get a few comments from people who can fund your election. ... We all know that change, real change, starts at the grass roots, and if we don’t continue this, we are missing the chance to be leaders.”

The council considered the program after a request in August from Citizens Congress, a San Luis Obispo election reform group spearheaded by William Ostrander that proposed an ordinance to create a “democracy voucher” funding system for municipal elections. Ostrander, director of Citizens Congress and a farmer who lives just outside San Luis Obispo, is running for the 24th District congressional seat on a platform emphasizing campaign finance reform.

“It is disingenuous to say we don’t have a problem here locally when 192 people fund all of our candidates,” Ostrander told the council Tuesday, adding that Carpenter had been enthusiastic about the idea when the two men first spoke about it.

“The suggestion that there are all kinds of city constituents in opposition to this seems disingenuous,” Ostrander added. “Your representation of us does not stop at the city boundaries.”

As proposed, the “democracy voucher” system would give each registered voter $20 to donate to candidates who agree only to receive contributions through the program. Candidates could receive up to $50,000 for a single election — a cap that’s three times the amount raised by any candidate in the 2014 election.

City election regulations now limit the amount that candidates can accept from individual donors (excluding immediate family members) to $300 per person. The council raised the cap from $200 in 2014.

The system would be the first of its kind in California and among the first in the nation, though other cities have some form of publicly financed campaigns.

City staff estimated the program could cost as much as $650,000 in its first year and about half as much in subsequent years, with money coming out of the city’s general fund.

Carpenter said in an email to The Tribune that he initially joined Rivoire and Ashbaugh in supporting the direction to “level the playing field so more candidates would be encouraged to participate in our elected representative process.”

But after the council’s decision, Carpenter said he heard from “many citizens throughout the community with a primary concern about the inappropriate use of taxpayer resources for candidates.”

Carpenter didn’t add any comments to his original statement at Tuesday’s meeting. Mayor Jan Marx and Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson joined him in voting in favor of not moving forward.