City Council candidates who take public money for campaigns in the next municipal election will have more clarity on the legal definitions of terms such as “coordination” and “disclosure.” Yet, they won’t be allowed to raise additional funds to compete against privately funded candidates. That’s after Santa Fe City Council approved some proposed revisions to campaign finance regulations late Wednesday.
But some of those following the issue closely say the changes won’t really do much to stop the influence of political action committees.
Ethics and Campaign Review Board members had proposed rule changes to address what constitutes coordination between candidates and independent groups and what kinds of election activities require disclosing who has paid for them, and those measures passed. What failed were revisions that would have allowed publicly financed candidates to raise money privately and receive matching funds from the city for those efforts.
During the 2014 mayoral election, some alleged that local unions acted in coordination with candidates, Zachary Shandler, assistant city attorney, said in his introduction to the ordinance.
“These citizens asked, what does coordination really mean?” Shandler said. “If citizens are confused [about] what coordination means, let's give them examples.”
The proposed ordinance changes arrived before the governing body without a recommendation from the Finance Committee, which reviewed the proposal on July 13 and determined, as Finance Chairman Carmichael Dominguez told SFR earlier this month, “in order to do this right, we needed to have the entire City Council chime in on it and debate it.”
That approach, however, fueled a confusing flurry of amendments and motions for changes.
“That fine-tuning should come from the professionals that do it…Us making legislation on the fly is not a good idea,” said Councilor Chris Rivera. “I'm planning on running again, so these changes would really benefit me, but I think there's more important things than what would benefit me.”
Members of the ECRB suggested that if councilors couldn't comfortably adopt all of the proposed changes during Wednesday evening's meeting, they could adopt the definitions and disclosure provisions and table the remainder, with a set deadline to reconsider the proposals.
Following a motion from Councilor Signe Lindell to that end, the council voted 6-3 in favor of that approach, with councilors Peter Ives and Joseph Maestas and Mayor Javier Gonzales opposing.
The ECRB recommendations that were approved define coordination, expressly list coordinated expenditures and outline the boundaries that need to be maintained for professional services, like perhaps a polling service, to work with multiple entities in a campaign without combining resources or using voter information in a way that would constitute real coordination, like sharing materials, phone scripts or voter lists.
The changes also add examples and definitions to rules stating that entities spending $250 or more on any campaign communication, including advertisements, mail campaigns, billboards, signs or phone banks, also have to disclose their expenditures and contributions. A representative for that organization must certify that these expenses were not made at the request or suggestion of the candidate.
Some have questioned whether it would remain possible, under what’s called the "nesting doll” effect, that the only contributor a group could disclose would be another political action committee that’s not required to list its donors. To take their best shot at that issue, the ECRB added language that says if an entity does not have to disclose its contributors, then their campaign materials need to state that.
“We concluded that, with the limited staff that we have at the city, there was not a way of really tracking that back,” said Ruth Kovnat, a member of the ECRB.
“These will not stop PACs,” former councilor Karen Heldmeyer said during public comment. “I think the public needs to be aware of that, or they're going to be very upset with the outcome of this.”
The definition of coordination is basically unenforceable without a mole, a disgruntled employee or a misfired email, Heldmeyer said.
The portion of the ordinance that was postponed would have allowed publicly financed candidates, funding for whom is capped at $15,000 for City Council and $60,000 for mayoral races, to raise money privately and receive matching funds from the city's coffers at a four-to-one rate. The intention was that those additional funds might better allow publicly funded candidates to compete with those who are privately funded or are benefiting from independent groups campaigning on their behalf.
“I will tell you being a participant in that election and being the individual where people were casting lots of stones, I think that it would have been good for that campaign if there were other funds that were available to be used,” Gonzales said.
But councilors expressed concern at the possible expense the city could face by spending so much on campaigns, and what remedy these revisions really would provide.
“In the last mayoral election in 2014, all three candidates, in an effort to level the playing field, used public campaign financing," Councilor Bill Dimas said in a prepared statement when council discussion opened. When outside groups, including unions, started spending money for a certain candidate, Dimas said, "that's when the concept of a level playing field went to hell."
He added, “Public campaign financing will be nothing more than supplemental financing to PACs. I'm not sure this is what the voters wanted. I'm not naïve enough to believe these will fix anything…I know some campaign finance changes will probably pass tonight because it's the politically correct thing to do, but I don't always do the politically correct thing.”
Maestas, who opposed the motion to pass just the definitions and disclosure requirements and not the change to publicly funded candidates, said he was sorry to see these “progressive concepts” removed from the ordinance, and Gonzales echoed that it was a missed opportunity. They said they expect to revisit the matter in January.
Because postponements were the theme of the evening, City Council also reopened the July 8 vote in favor of a senior living community on Old Pecos Trail, but were unable to come to a decision on how to handle the matter. Weeks after casting the tie-breaking vote, Mayor Javier Gonzales asked council to remand the decision to the Planning Commission to see if the Colorado-based developer Morningstar and the Southeast Neighborhood Association that had opposed the project could mediate a compromise that might alleviate some of the visual impacts of the project on the historic access route to Santa Fe.
The conversation led to some exacerbated procedural bickering and councilors split themselves in half several times voting on multiple motions to require parties to attend mediation meetings, then allow the City Council to reconsider the proposal themselves or remand the decision to the Planning Commission, the composition of which has changed since that committee last approved the development’s special use permit and rezoning.
Gonzales argued the Planning Commission should have another chance to consider it, Councilor Patti Bushee argued the decision should fall to City Council. Councilors Rivera and Ronald Trujillo fought against the whole question of reopening the application, Rivera saying this kind of unsteadiness sends a bad message to businesses that want to move into town.
Discussion descended into what councilors themselves deemed “a circus” and a “dog and pony show,” and, ultimately, a decision only to postpone the conversation to the next City Council meeting.