City mulls campaign finance limits 

With campaign costs mounting in every election over the past 10 years, city officials will revisit the possibility today of reforming election-time spending and contributions.

"Historically speaking, it’s been an upward trend," Councilman Russ Cohen said. Burlingame doesn’t have campaign spending or donation limits, and the entire council has agreed there is a need to look into potential regulations, he said. Former Mayor Cathy Baylock put the issue on the agenda in April at the request of current Mayor Terry Nagel.

"It was an aftermath of the previous [2005] election when a lot of money was spent," Cohen said.

Nearly $200,000 total was raised in the 2005 election. Since 1997, spending on campaigns has gone up from an average of about $14,000 per candidate to slightly more than $27,000 in 2005, according to a report by City Attorney Larry Anderson.

The council is taking the lead from other Peninsula cities, including Belmont and San Mateo, which approved caps on donations in 2004 of $500 from organizations, $250 on individual contributions and $15,000 in personal loans, according to Anderson. A U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed limits on candidates spending money on their own campaigns, but left cities free to pursue some donation limits.

In past discussions, council members were open to considering maximum contribution limits, but opposed the idea of any public financing for campaigns, Anderson said.

The idea is to keep elections fair and open, but to allow enough spending for a newcomer to have a chance, said Councilwoman Ann Keighran. Incumbents not only usually need to spend less to get name recognition, but have a public forum new candidates lack to educate voters on their viewpoints, she said.

"There are a lot of different angles you have to look at — it’s not just about money," she said. "I don’t think it’s an easy issue." Officials would need to account for candidates who run jointly, volunteers’ expenses and political action committees’ spending, she said. "And that’s if the council wants to do this," she said, adding that she needs more information before giving her support.

Anderson’s report also notes another obstacle to making contribution limits a reality — the city doesn’t have the resources or systems in place to enforce them.

The City Council meets today at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 501 Primrose Road.

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