The money trap

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As candidates ready for local elections and financial stakes grow in these races, City Council members take action to oppose campaign finance reform initiative.

Pasadena Weekly

Just days before last week’s candidate filing deadline closed for the Pasadena City Council race in March, council members unanimously opposed a campaign finance reform measure that seeks to limit the powers and perks of elected and appointed city officials.

The measure comes at a time when campaign contributions in Pasadena are taking on higher financial stakes and appear more instrumental than ever in determining who wins.

It seeks to bar officials from accepting perks such as jobs, tax breaks, major gifts and land deals from people to whom they have awarded “public benefits” in office.

Within minutes of the Dec. 4 council move to oppose the measure, Mayor Bill Bogaard also called on former Pasadena mayors to join forces against it and “give credence as to the wisdom of this ordinance — or the lack thereof.”

But while council members rejected the “Taxpayer Protection Amendment” initiative, they stopped short of directing the city attorney to draft an alternative measure that city legal advisors say could have competed with it.

Still, as local campaign funds escalate, so too does the need for more stringent finance regulation, many believe. Council members say they also support such reforms — just not this one.

Candidates in last year’s mayoral contest together received $850,000 in campaign donations — far more than seen in previous Pasadena races, according to campaign records. A full 94% of that amount went to just three candidates of 10 — Mayor Bill Bogaard, Chris Holden and Ann-Marie Villicana — and each of them received the highest shares of votes cast.

The initiative has received the support of over 18,000 registered Pasadena voters who signed a petition to place the measure on the ballot — far more than needed to qualify it. It is part of a statewide effort by former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader and his affiliated Santa Monica-based group, the Oaks Project.

Council members have repeatedly called the measure a nuisance because they believe it is not only unnecessary, but would cause more problems than it would solve.

Political bribery and other such corruption are virtually unheard of in Pasadena — a point even the measure’s leading supporters concede.

Oaks Project director Paul Herzog believes, nonetheless, that the City Council’s opposition to the local measure suggests that council members are acting without the public interest in mind.

“It’s an age-old tactic for officials to use their position of authority to try and confuse the voters by convincing them that it’s poorly written and has unintended consequences,” Herzog said.

Pasadena candidates face no mandatory campaign contribution limits now, following the passage of state Proposition 34 last month. That measure repealed parts of Proposition 208, which passed in 1996. Proposition 208 would have imposed restrictions on local races but has instead been tangled up in court.

Council member Steve Madison is sure that the Oaks Project measure is “unconstitutional,” he said, because it would limit citizens from supporting the candidate of their choice. This perception is consistent with legal advice the city has received about a near-identical measure being challenged in court in the north San Diego County city of Vista.

Council member Paul Little is also concerned about the Oaks Project measure’s self-defeating “loopholes,” he has said, because it does not expressly limit the allowable campaign contributions of political action committees.

“Special interests are very good at finding soft money loopholes,” he said.

Little had called for an alternative initiative to be drafted by the city that would make local finance disclosure laws more stringent. For the time being, however, the council has decided not to follow through on that proposal.

Pasadena environmental engineer Paul Monsour, a leading supporter of the initiative, acknowledges that the Oaks Project measure may have imperfect safeguards against political corruption. But, he added, “If people are going to try that hard not to obey the spirit of the law, then any campaign finance law would have trouble.

“What’s been lost in a lot of the discussion at the City Council meeting is that they work for us and we have the right to set conditions of their employment — whether they are comfortable with them or not,” he said.

Consumer Watchdog
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