In May, a colleagues memo from council members Peter Drekmeier and LaDoris Cordell earned support from six other council members -- coupled with assurances that there is currently no problem.
The matter was then referred to the council's Policy and Services Committee.
Continued improvements to the collective garden that feeds our city government should not require a crisis. But I kept wondering: Is the upbeat "no problem" assessment accurate?
To find out, I went to primary sources: the disclosure Forms 460 on file at the city clerk's office. Periodic filing is mandated by California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for local candidates who raise or spend $1,000 or more during an election year.
I pored over the records for the 2003 and 2005 council campaigns, entered values and calculations in spreadsheet cells, rolled up totals, and analyzed selected data. The resulting 30-page Excel document is publicly available at the city clerk's office or upon request to my e-mail address below.
My conclusion from this effort is that there are warning flags amid the data.
In 2005, two candidates broke the $30,000 mark in both contributions and expenditures, more than 10 times the totals for Cordell's successful, self-financed 2003 effort. But even if we set aside the former judge's campaign financing as an anomaly, per candidate averages still rose about 9 percent.
Even more important concerns are revealed in the fine details, which include filings unavailable until after an election.
There is generally adequate information publicized before election day. Disclosure forms are filed at the end of September and again 16 days before the vote. The press covers these filings. The city clerk compiles names and associated contributions of $50 or more and publishes the list in a local paper on the Friday before the election. Additional monetary contributions of $1,000 or more in the final days must be reported within 24 hours, so a savvy reporter or citizen watchdog could come across them.
But after the election, additional contributions made that year need not be filed until Jan. 31, well after their disclosure could have any impact on a voter's decision. On one disclosure form, 11 of the 13 contributions after the election brought in more than $5,000, and five of the contributors had already given more than $250 each.
A cap on total contributions for the year from any single source would help prevent the use of this potentially problematic loophole.
Large contributions at any time are a cause for concern, and two council members said they had adhered to an unwritten Palo Alto norm of a $250 contribution cap.
However, in both 2003 and 2005, contributions above $250 accounted for more than 20 percent of all monetary contributions. The donations came from individuals, businesses, political action committees and other groups, including the city's firefighters union.
Some contributors gave significantly more than $250 -- so much so that if a voluntary contribution cap of $300 (as now proposed by the Policy and Services Committee, scheduled to be considered by the full council on Sept. 10) had been followed, the total amount of these large monetary contributions would have been cut nearly in half.
Non-monetary, "in-kind" contributions of $50 or more must also be reported and are quite significant relative to their number. They include the fair market value of goods and some services.
In both 2003 and again in 2005, there were fewer than 10 non-monetary contributions above $250. But the total value was about $17,000 in each year. This translated into 13 percent of all contributions in 2003 and 8 percent in 2005.
In 2005, non-monetary contributions included a mailing in support of two candidates from the city's service employees union. In 2003, they included a mailing or precinct walkers in support of two candidates from "Yes on Measure C" (the committee in support of the 800 High St. project). I find this type of cross-pollination highly detrimental to public perceptions.
A third group of large non-monetary contributions included donations for campaign events, office supplies and postage. Why should a candidate not pay for these donations above a reasonable cap?
Non-monetary contributions as defined by the FPPC do not apply to personal volunteer services. A volunteer, no matter what his or her areas of support and corresponding skill levels, can contribute as much personal time as desired without it becoming a reportable contribution.
A $300 cap on contributions from any source and a $30,000 total expenditure-spending limit leaves plenty of legroom for any candidate to get his or her message out.
And, surprise, a voluntary system has advantages: It avoids legal challenges and sticky enforcement issues.
City recognition of candidates who accept the pledge, buttressed by public support of the concept, and diligent reporting is the best way to keep the election playing field level in our town.
So council members take heed. And candidates, proudly wear your own Palo Alto City Council Contributions and Expenditures Pledge cap, until an official one comes along.