Politics & Government

Citizens group proposing public financing for SLO elections

A San Luis Obispo-based election reform group plans to urge local leaders on Tuesday to pursue a new ordinance supporting public financing of local elections.

Members of Citizens Congress say their proposed ordinance would promote honesty and fairness in local elections by removing the need for candidates to seek donations from wealthy citizens.

It could also decrease voter apathy and increase participation, William Ostrander, director of Citizens Congress, said.

If the council wants to move ahead, it could become the first city in the nation with this specific type of campaign finance reform, according to information from Ostrander and Michael Latner, an associate professor of political science at Cal Poly.

Ostrander, who lives just outside San Luis Obispo’s city limits, is running for the congressional seat being vacated by Lois Capps.

Before the program moves forward, the City Council would have to direct city staff to evaluate it, City Clerk Anthony J. Mejia said. As proposed by Citizens Congress, the public financing system would cost the city nearly $500,000 to start.

The public financing program would be voluntary for candidates. If candidates accepted public financing, they could only contribute up to $300 toward their campaigns and accept only contributions in the form of publicly funded vouchers.

However, independent expenditure committees, organized by individuals or groups, could still spend money on candidates — but they would have to disclose any expenditures over $500.

It’s unclear whether the program could be put in place before the Nov. 8, 2016, general election.

Three SLO City Council seats are up for election next year: those held by Mayor Jan Marx and Councilmen John Ashbaugh and Dan Carpenter.

Ashbaugh has served two terms and won’t be able to run in the next election for council, though he could run for mayor.

Carpenter is running for the county’s 3rd District supervisor seat.

The mayor’s seat is elected every two years; the council members serve four-year terms.

The “Integrity in Our Elections” ordinance would create a publicly funded election through a “democracy voucher.”

San Luis Obispo registered voters — there are about 24,990 — would each receive a $20 voucher that can be “swiped” at campaign events or used to make an online contribution. Voters could divide the $20 among as many candidates as they wished. Candidates could choose between public or private financing.

A proposed ordinance by Citizens Congress would require candidates interested in receiving public funding to participate in at least three public debates and not contribute or lend more than $300 to their own committee.

In addition, candidates could not receive more than $50,000 in voucher funds during a single municipal election year, according to the proposed ordinance. Ostrander said the amount could be adjusted if the council desired.

Citizens Congress members said the public financing system compels candidates to focus on the issues with constituents instead of leaning on wealthy patrons to fund their campaigns.

In addition, their ordinance would require electronic disclosure of any campaign-related expenditure of more than $500 by any individual or organization within 24 hours.

An ethics committee made up of citizens would evaluate and report alleged violations to the City Attorney’s Office.

According to Citizens Congress, 28 states and major cities, including Los Angeles and New York, already have some form of public financing. But this particular voucher program would be unique to San Luis Obispo, the group said.