City committee will look into campaign finance reform

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Irvine World News

A campaign finance reform effort that emerged last summer with much controversy resurfaced this week when the City Council voted unanimously to form a committee to study the current ordinance.

The committee, made up of Mayor Larry Agran and Councilman Greg Smith, will identify which areas of the city’s conflict-of-interest code, if any, should be revamped.

The Ralph Nader-led “Oaks Project,” an advocacy group out of Santa Monica, suggested back in July that the city adopt the group’s recommendation to make the city’s conflict-of-interest laws more strict.

The group also circulated a petition to give voters a chance to change the ordinance, but it was 81 signatures shy of making it onto the November election ballot. After the petition’s failure, city officials and Oaks volunteers decided to meet to discuss the city’s current ordinance.

“We want residents to have confidence in their elected officials,” said Susan Sayre, one of the group’s Irvine volunteers.

“Ignoring the issue has led to scandal,” she said, referring to former Councilman Dave Christensen, and reports that he may have received income from local businesses, and then voted on city contracts involving the businesses.

Christensen himself referred the matter to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, and at present, there has been no finding as to whether his actions violated the city ordinance.

“That situation is just the type of situation our recommendations would deal with,” said Sayre. “When things happen, it really undermines confidence in public officials.”

The group’s initial petition, as written, would have restricted companies with city contracts worth $20,000 or more from contributing to city political campaigns. The measure would have prohibited companies from offering future employment or gifts to city officials.

Council members were concerned back in June when the petition surfaced about the legality of such an ordinance, and initiated a legal challenge to the petition. Council members said the decision was at the urging of City Attorney Joel Kuperberg, who had concerns that certain provisions in the measure might restrict First Amendment rights of free speech.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, caps on contributions can be legal, but blanket prohibitions are not.

Council members said early on that their decision was not based on whether they agreed or disagreed with the content of the measure, but whether letting a legally flawed initiative go to the public would end up costing the city in litigation costs.

After the petition’s failure, council members indicated a need to look at the issue, and despite a rocky beginning, have formed a working relationship with Oaks volunteers.

The committee will, among other things, look at the impact of Proposition 34, a measure governing campaign contributions being reviewed by the Fair Political Practices Commission, and Proposition 208, a campaign finance initiative approved in 1997.

Currently, the city limits campaign contributions to $320 over a four-year period.

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