Big donors have yet to seize the power of the people as election spending continues to rise, but the city needs to cap campaign contributions before it does, Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel said.
At a City Council study session Tuesday, City Council members wrestled with campaign financing reform for the first time since Nagel brought the issue up in April after reports showed that over $200,000 was spent on campaigning in the 2005 election. Burlingame doesn’t have regulations, and since 1997, spending on campaigns has gone up an average of about $14,000 per candidate to just over $27,000, City Attorney Larry Anderson said.
"My conclusion in wanting us to discuss this is that, had I run for the first time in the last election ... I would have been frightened at the prospect of running," Nagel said. "Operating on the theory that the more voices in democracy that are represented … I would think that it makes more sense to somehow cap contributions," she said.
However, "if that’s the issue — that it discourages candidates from running — it really hasn’t discouraged candidates," countered councilwoman Ann Keighran. She expressed concerns that with spending caps, newcomers wouldn’t haven’t a fair shot to publicize their names and issues, giving incumbents an even greater advantage in Burlingame, a city that appears to have more competitive elections than in other cities. Councilwoman Rosalie O’Mahoney also pointed out that upward spending trends were likely tied to cost of living as much as politics.
One supporter of Nagel’s view was councilman Russ Cohen, who said contribution ceilings are needed to "level the playing field."
"We can’t control the spending, we have to control the raising," he said.
The council is taking the lead from other Peninsula cities, including Belmont, Half Moon Bay and San Mateo, which approved caps in 2004 of $500 from organizations, $250 on individual contributions and $15,000 personal loans, Anderson said.
In discussing options for Burlingame, council members agreed to examine contribution ceilings ranging from $300 to $500 from individuals and $600 to $1,000 from organizations, to limit spending during election cycles rather than year-round, and to look into a $15,000 self-loan ceiling. Urged by Nagel, the council members also agreed to lobby state legislators to create regulations for anonymous slate mailers, which Anderson said the city can’t regulate, and to speed up a process for filing fundraising disclosure forms online.