News

Opinion: Local campaign donations and expenditures: Enough already

A voter fills out their ballot at the Palo Alto Art Center in Palo Alto on Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

I believe most community members are unaware of the changes that have transformed local campaign financing in recent years. My hope is that this op-ed will serve as an impetus for members of our community to advocate for much needed reforms.

Gail Price. Courtesy Gail Price.

As a former Palo Alto City Council and Board of Education member and an adviser to numerous candidates, I have direct experience in local campaign finance and strategies. During the past decade, I have witnessed alarming changes in the ways in which City Council campaigns are funded.

Running for City Council in Palo Alto (population 68,572) costs far more than in cities of equivalent or larger size and is dominated by large donations from a very small number of donors. Between 2014 and 2020, campaign expenditures made by winning City Council candidates increased 66%, from $40,000 to $66,620.

Raising large sums of money is now viewed by many candidates as essential for success. I disagree.

After speaking with many potential City Council candidates, I have learned that the arms race in local campaign spending deters "ordinary citizens" from running. As a successful candidate, I know that the ability to market yourself and your ideas is essential. But in a city the size of Palo Alto, candidates should not feel compelled to build a formidable campaign cache. For decades, candidates have been successful with low-cost strategies — knocking on doors, meeting with voters to understand their concerns and educating themselves about local issues.

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I am also concerned about the significant proportion of outsized donations going to council candidates. For example, in 2020, 20 donors, each giving more than $3,500, represented nearly one-third of all donations received. Some individuals donated as much as $10,000.

In the elections between 2014 and 2018, the top 25 contributors gave one-third of the money raised by all candidates. These large donations create the actual or perceived risk that a candidate will feel indebted to their large donors and will not exercise impartial judgment on matters affecting those donors.

A related concern is that outside groups are spending thousands of dollars each election cycle to stuff our mailboxes with glossy ads supporting local candidates; yet, in most cases, we have no idea who paid for these ads and thus are unaware of the connection between the ad's funders and the candidate they support.

Concerns about these issues led to the convening of a local campaign finance reform task force under the aegis of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto. The task force has been meeting since early 2021, soliciting input from Common Cause and the California Clean Money Campaign. Its recommendations, summarized below, are not radical, and many neighboring communities, such as Mountain View, Cupertino, and Santa Clara, have adopted similar reforms.

The first recommendation is that candidates voluntarily limit campaign spending to $30,000. While mandatory spending limits are not enforceable, cities can offer incentives to encourage candidates to voluntarily adopt these limits. Mountain View adopted voluntary campaign spending limits in 2000. Since then, all candidates have chosen to accept the limit, currently set at $27,400, indexed for inflation.

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As an incentive for candidates to accept voluntary spending limits, some cities partially subsidize the cost of the candidate statement published by the Registrar of Voters, which can exceed $4,000. Other cities reward candidates who agree to the spending limits with much higher individual donation limits than those who reject the limits. Whether candidates agree or reject the limits is published on the city's website. Violations of the limits are also published in newspapers and on the city's website.

One city that enacted spending limits noted in its municipal code that if candidates knew that other candidates were willing to limit their expenditures, it may attract additional candidates and allow all candidates and officeholders to spend less time fundraising and more time communicating issues of importance to voters and constituents.

The task force also recommends mandatory individual donation limits of $250 for council candidates who do not accept voluntary expenditure limits and mandatory individual donation limits of $500 for those who do. Limiting individual donations helps ensure that candidates do not rely on a few wealthy donors to finance their campaigns and compels candidates to build a broader base of smaller and often more diverse donors.

Currently Palo Alto candidates may receive donations up to the state donation limit of $4,900. California cities may adopt lower limits; the average limit is $438 in cities with populations under 100,000 that have adopted donation limits.

Finally, the task force recommends increased disclosure on political ads made by outside groups. The Citizens United ruling makes it legal for unlimited amounts of "dark money" to flow through independent expenditure committees on behalf of a candidate as long as those committees don't coordinate directly with the candidate. Although cities can't limit funds spent on political ads made by outside groups, it is possible to strengthen disclosure requirements, so we know who is influencing elections.

These reforms will help combat the appearance of undue influence, enhance political engagement for all citizens, including those with diverse backgrounds and means, and still allow candidates sufficient opportunities to get their messages out.

Based on conversations with local voters and candidates, I have found widespread support for these suggested reforms, which have also been distributed to the City Council with a request to enact them in time for the 2022 election.

If you support adopting these local campaign finance reform measures, please contact City Council members. This is an unprecedented opportunity to establish a more inclusive and democratic political climate in our community. I hope you concur.

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Gail Price is a former Palo Alto City Council member and a Palo Alto Unified School District school board member and can be emailed at [email protected]

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Opinion: Local campaign donations and expenditures: Enough already

by Gail A. Price / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Dec 3, 2021, 6:46 am

I believe most community members are unaware of the changes that have transformed local campaign financing in recent years. My hope is that this op-ed will serve as an impetus for members of our community to advocate for much needed reforms.

As a former Palo Alto City Council and Board of Education member and an adviser to numerous candidates, I have direct experience in local campaign finance and strategies. During the past decade, I have witnessed alarming changes in the ways in which City Council campaigns are funded.

Running for City Council in Palo Alto (population 68,572) costs far more than in cities of equivalent or larger size and is dominated by large donations from a very small number of donors. Between 2014 and 2020, campaign expenditures made by winning City Council candidates increased 66%, from $40,000 to $66,620.

Raising large sums of money is now viewed by many candidates as essential for success. I disagree.

After speaking with many potential City Council candidates, I have learned that the arms race in local campaign spending deters "ordinary citizens" from running. As a successful candidate, I know that the ability to market yourself and your ideas is essential. But in a city the size of Palo Alto, candidates should not feel compelled to build a formidable campaign cache. For decades, candidates have been successful with low-cost strategies — knocking on doors, meeting with voters to understand their concerns and educating themselves about local issues.

I am also concerned about the significant proportion of outsized donations going to council candidates. For example, in 2020, 20 donors, each giving more than $3,500, represented nearly one-third of all donations received. Some individuals donated as much as $10,000.

In the elections between 2014 and 2018, the top 25 contributors gave one-third of the money raised by all candidates. These large donations create the actual or perceived risk that a candidate will feel indebted to their large donors and will not exercise impartial judgment on matters affecting those donors.

A related concern is that outside groups are spending thousands of dollars each election cycle to stuff our mailboxes with glossy ads supporting local candidates; yet, in most cases, we have no idea who paid for these ads and thus are unaware of the connection between the ad's funders and the candidate they support.

Concerns about these issues led to the convening of a local campaign finance reform task force under the aegis of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto. The task force has been meeting since early 2021, soliciting input from Common Cause and the California Clean Money Campaign. Its recommendations, summarized below, are not radical, and many neighboring communities, such as Mountain View, Cupertino, and Santa Clara, have adopted similar reforms.

The first recommendation is that candidates voluntarily limit campaign spending to $30,000. While mandatory spending limits are not enforceable, cities can offer incentives to encourage candidates to voluntarily adopt these limits. Mountain View adopted voluntary campaign spending limits in 2000. Since then, all candidates have chosen to accept the limit, currently set at $27,400, indexed for inflation.

As an incentive for candidates to accept voluntary spending limits, some cities partially subsidize the cost of the candidate statement published by the Registrar of Voters, which can exceed $4,000. Other cities reward candidates who agree to the spending limits with much higher individual donation limits than those who reject the limits. Whether candidates agree or reject the limits is published on the city's website. Violations of the limits are also published in newspapers and on the city's website.

One city that enacted spending limits noted in its municipal code that if candidates knew that other candidates were willing to limit their expenditures, it may attract additional candidates and allow all candidates and officeholders to spend less time fundraising and more time communicating issues of importance to voters and constituents.

The task force also recommends mandatory individual donation limits of $250 for council candidates who do not accept voluntary expenditure limits and mandatory individual donation limits of $500 for those who do. Limiting individual donations helps ensure that candidates do not rely on a few wealthy donors to finance their campaigns and compels candidates to build a broader base of smaller and often more diverse donors.

Currently Palo Alto candidates may receive donations up to the state donation limit of $4,900. California cities may adopt lower limits; the average limit is $438 in cities with populations under 100,000 that have adopted donation limits.

Finally, the task force recommends increased disclosure on political ads made by outside groups. The Citizens United ruling makes it legal for unlimited amounts of "dark money" to flow through independent expenditure committees on behalf of a candidate as long as those committees don't coordinate directly with the candidate. Although cities can't limit funds spent on political ads made by outside groups, it is possible to strengthen disclosure requirements, so we know who is influencing elections.

These reforms will help combat the appearance of undue influence, enhance political engagement for all citizens, including those with diverse backgrounds and means, and still allow candidates sufficient opportunities to get their messages out.

Based on conversations with local voters and candidates, I have found widespread support for these suggested reforms, which have also been distributed to the City Council with a request to enact them in time for the 2022 election.

If you support adopting these local campaign finance reform measures, please contact City Council members. This is an unprecedented opportunity to establish a more inclusive and democratic political climate in our community. I hope you concur.

Gail Price is a former Palo Alto City Council member and a Palo Alto Unified School District school board member and can be emailed at [email protected]

Comments

Local Resident
Registered user
Community Center
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:18 am
Local Resident, Community Center
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:18 am

This is an opinion piece. The key is they want to limit individuals (residents) to contributing $250 per person. This would only work if no organizations (including the Democratic Party) could spend more than $250 for or against a candidate but I don't know how that's possible.

A little background. Liz Kniss is now the president of the Palo Alto League of Woman Voters. She had repeated campaign finance violations including failing to disclose the many contributions from developers until after the election.

Web Link

Currently limiting campaign contributions by individuals is being pushed by folks like Liz Kniss because a few civically minded residents stepped up to the plate to counter developer contributions and some folks believe Palo Alto can be urbanized faster if those residents influence is diminished.


tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:19 am
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:19 am

“a local campaign finance reform task force under the aegis of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto.”

League president is Liz Kniss.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:24 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:24 am

What will Ms. Kniss's initiative do about thevery well-funded campaigns run by all the groups backed by corporate and institutional money like Palo Alto Forward, YIMBY, YIMBY LAW, Peninsula For Everyone, Renter's Alliance, etc. etc.

There's big tech and developer money behind all these groups, with new ones popping up seemingly weekly. Do a few searches and you'll see huge campaign budgets, paid staffers, in-kind donations of office space and resources, etc. etc.

Remember that Ms. Kniss has always been pro-development, pro-office buildings and famously denied PA even had a traffic problem.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:27 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:27 am

Palo Alto is fast becoming the irony capital of California.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:39 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:39 am

"The task force also recommends mandatory individual donation limits of $250 for council candidates who do not accept voluntary expenditure limits and mandatory individual donation limits of $500 for those who do. "

Irony or travesty or hypocrisy when donations to those groups named above run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars and in a few cases millions of dollars?

This isn't just a finger on the scale, it's putting a whole body there.


Nancy Neff
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:42 am
Nancy Neff, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:42 am

@ Online Name: I have been working with the Task Force so I am familiar with details of the proposal. Disclosure on political ads of the top 5 funders will be required as soon as a group spends over $2500, and if a contributor is a committee, the top 3 funders of the committee will also be diclosed. Then voters will know who is behind the spending.


Local Resident
Registered user
Community Center
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:49 am
Local Resident, Community Center
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 9:49 am

So groups can spend as much as they want but only have to disclose when they spend 10X what an individual spends? That's definitely trying to handicap residents.


Nancy Neff
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:03 am
Nancy Neff, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:03 am

@ Local Resident: There is a balancing act for how low to put the threshold, with lower thresholds for displaying contributors on ads more likely to lead to constitutional challenges. Top contributors must be disclosed who made total contributions of $2500 or more to the committee that paid for the ad in the last 12 months, not who paid for a specific ad. So a $2500 threshold would hopefully capture the major players in Palo Alto.


ALB
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:12 am
ALB, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:12 am

Gail Price and Liz Kniss should never be the messengers for campaign finance reform as they are in the pocket of developers.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:25 am
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:25 am

Wait a minute, apply critical thinking to this proposal and it doesn’t look so good. It only speaks to the low hanging fruit, turning a blind eye to some insidious practices.

It is completely silent on major PAC donations that can avoid reporting by channeling it through a membership group to support candidates agreeable to both parties. The group could be given a $50,000 PAC donation, then can print campaign materials for distribution by members, pay a private service to drop them door-to-door, etc.

In the last election a lot of LLCs donated large amounts of money to some candidates. The individuals behind those LLC’s wouldn’t have to reaveal thier ID here, even if making smaller donations.

There’s nothing about out-of-town donations. Only town residents vote, yet a few candidates were notable in having great numbers of out-of-town donations compared to in-town, and not from just a few friends and family. It’s critical to know how many, how much, and from whom this money comes from. It influences our elections, some candidates and who ends up on city council. Is it from lobbyists such as Yimby Action headquartered in Sacramento, billionaire developers, etc.?

Not surprising, given Liz Kniss was involved with creating this proposal (earlier reports), that it leaves out requiring early reporting of developer donations before elections? Kniss got caught reporting all her developer donations after her last election, so voters didn’t know she broke her promise not to take developer money.

An unenforceable voluntary cap on spending is likely doomed to fail. Greg Scharf completely self-financed his last election – around $100,000. When candidates can self-finance, make themselves loans (and often do), spending limits ring hollow.



Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:55 am
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 10:55 am

As a former campaign worker for a successful candidate, I can say this statement is true. "...doesn’t look so good. It only speaks to the low hanging fruit, turning a blind eye to some insidious practices."

Our campaign stuck to our candidate's commitment not to seek big donations from developers and other big interests outside Palo Alto. That required enormous discipline and grueling grassroots work. This put our candidate at a significant disadvantage because opponents were raking in very large donations from deep-pocketed private interests. We had to do five times the work to keep up. We never could raise what those opponents did. It was surprising to see how much of the money was coming from outside of Palo Alto. We were fortunate that our candidate was capable and our team of volunteers was willing to do the extra work. The problem seems to be escalating, and I wonder how it will affect future potential candidates decisions to run.

This proposal puts candidates, especially new entries to the political field who want to represent residents, at a real disadvantage. Given how these recommendations are written, that appears deliberate. Ms. Kniss has recruited a fleet of Palo Alto Forward members to the LWV Board this year. As a long-time member of the League, I have been disappointed by some of the work they are doing. It looks to me like they are being influenced by political advocacy groups with developer ties. That is not what I expect from the League of Women Voters. I'll be viewing their recommendations with a different lens while the current League leadership is in charge.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 3, 2021 at 2:02 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 2:02 pm

I remember when the League of Women Voters was a trusted organization. But that was then and this is now.

@Nancy Neff, you didn't answer any of the questions about limiting the donations from organizations, PACS, companies, etc.

I remember an earlier campaign where organized groups nastily criticized contributions from between 5 to 8 wealthy individuals, claiming they were real big donors who were bigger than the Chamber of Commerce, one of the top 3 lobbying organizations in the entire US which helps all its local chapters.

The lack of transparency and logic is really quite something. They obviously think we're morons to believe a $10K donation is the worst of all possible worlds in this era of Citizens United -- "corporations are people, my friend" -- and huge Dark Money groups.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2021 at 2:03 pm
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 2:03 pm

A needed correction to my comment, 2nd above - I should have said Greg Scharf self-financed his candidacy, not election, given he lost to Karen Holman.

Also -State and federal constraints on what and how limits can be imposed is no excuse for enacting bad policies that selectively try to shut some doors while leaving others wide open to abuse.


Angie Evans
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2021 at 4:25 pm
Angie Evans, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 4:25 pm

There has often been a lot of conjecture from opposition in Palo Alto about Palo Alto Forward's funding. As a non-profit organization that relies on member dues and philanthropic grants, they/we have consistently shared funding sources. I'm not going to take the bait and debate this. Rather, I think we should focus on where and how money is being injected into our elections. Here's just one report here: Web Link


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 3, 2021 at 5:19 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 5:19 pm

The link posted by Angie Evans is interesting, though complex. (And significantly flawed in some respects; for example, Alison Cormack is classified as an outlier, when by voting history she should be classified in the Pro Growth camp.) The bottom line seems to be that large individual contributors have dominated donations in both the Residentialist and Pro Growth camps, with Residentialists gaining a larger edge in recent elections. Pro Growth candidates depend more heavily on non-resident individuals, corporations, and trade associations.

Liz Kniss is a consummate politician. She understands that given the distribution of donations, limiting individual contributions will tip the funding balance toward pro-growth candidates.


Jennifer DiBrienza
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Dec 3, 2021 at 5:28 pm
Jennifer DiBrienza, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 5:28 pm

I’m really surprised at some of the reactions to this piece. I thank Gail Price for writing it and the LWV for advocating for these changes. Some random thoughts in no particular order:

The question about developers and outside organizations is a good one. My understanding is they fall under the same donation limits and disclosures as any individual. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong on that but I think individual donations are individual donations. So on both “sides” of this debate there would be big limitations of a handful of very big donors. Sounds good to me!

As for out of town donors, I don’t believe that could be regulated. Now if you want to get serious about campaign finance there are all kinds of things we could do - we could partially publicly fund elections. In NYC elections, any donation from a resident is matched by the city, while outside ones are not.

PACs are a totally different story and, as noted in the piece, have been determined to be free speech and cannot have the same limits set. But disclosure rules would at least make it clear who was paying for them.

These all seem like very reasonable first steps to tamping down the escalating costs of mounting a local election and I look forward to hearing more and working with the community to make it happen!


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 3, 2021 at 7:46 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 7:46 pm

Why are PAC's a totally different story? Because they have more money? Because they're better organized? Because they can help their candidates with in-jkind donations of legal advice, office space, clerical help, web site help, etc etc?

How nice that Palo Alto Forward is featured on the Chamber of Commerce website along with Stanford, banks and other struggling mom & pop businesses.
Web Link

Or a search on Who Funds YIMWeb Link (which has local, state, national and global chapters and numerous spinoffs) the following comes up from WikiPedia for the Palo Alto chapter but to do browse the entire entry.

"The bills failed in the state senate after multiple attempts at passage. California YIMBY received $100,000 from Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, $1 million from Irish entrepreneurs John and Patrick Collison through their company, Stripe, and $500,000 raised by Pantheon CEO Zach Rosen and GitHub CEO Nat Friedman."

And Liz Kniss et al cares about $10K donations??!!


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2021 at 8:03 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 8:03 pm

Question for the LWV: what about the timing of donations? The set disclosure dates can be avoided. What's to stop a donor from pledging to donate - but after the election, avoiding the disclosure that might turn off voters? I think one of the biggest obstacles to having a level playing field is the PACs that are aligned with a political party. Remember the endless stream of glossy mailers for Mark Berman? The fine print told this story: our local election was out of our hands. On the surface, these changes present as a good idea. But as always, the devil is in the details.


Nancy Neff
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 3, 2021 at 11:06 pm
Nancy Neff, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 11:06 pm

Re: PACs, if they donate directly to a candidate they are subject to the same limits as an individual donating to a candidate. If they are spending for or against a candidate without coordinating with any candidate (called IEs or independent expenditures) the US Supreme Court said they cannot be limited but they can be disclosed.

Reporting requirements are specified by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Here's a paragraph from their website:

Who Files [Form 410]:
Recipient Committees: Persons (including an
officeholder or candidate), organizations, groups, or
other entities that raise contributions from others
totaling $2,000 or more in a calendar year to spend
on California elections. They must register with
the Secretary of State and report all receipts and
expenditures. “Contributions” include monetary
payments, loans and non-monetary goods and
services received or made for a political purpose.

Also from FPPC.ca.gov re Independent Expenditure Committees:

Individuals and entities, including corporations, firms,
businesses, and proprietorships, making independent expenditures of
$1,000 or more in a calendar year qualify as a committee under the
Act and must file reports of the independent expenditures.


Nancy Neff
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 3, 2021 at 11:31 pm
Nancy Neff, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 3, 2021 at 11:31 pm

@ Felix and Online Name: A membership group can send information only to its own members without triggering disclosure rules. Under the proposed reduction of the threshold from $50,000 (the state level) to $2500 (for Palo Alto races), a membership group receiving a PAC donation would have to be displayed on the ads that went to anyone other than members if they spent over $2500, and the top 3 donors to the group would also be displayed.

It would not be constitutional to ban out-of-town contributions, but all contributions to candidates, whether from individuals or organizations, must be reported to the Secretary of State.

A number of cities are having success with voluntary expenditure limits. While self funding cannot be regulated, it is usually covered by the press.

@ Consider Your Options: My observation of the Task Force was that there was a great deal of research on what other cities have done, and that the intention is to make running for office more accessible to candidates who want to represent residents. Lower donation limits should make it possible for candidates to compete who do not have access to wealthy donors or organizational support.

@Annette: I will respond although I don't represent the LWV; I am a volunteer with California Clean Money Campaign. I don't know of anything we can do anything about the timing issue, but I'll pose the question to CCMC. These proposals are not expected to fix everything, but we sincerely hope that they will be a significant improvement.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2021 at 7:54 am
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 7:54 am

Ms Neff - Disclosure does not equal prevention. Does the LWV not get this?

It doesn’t prevent PACs from still donating any amount (again using one example) to an agreeable membership group acting as a surrogate for a candidate that then can spend big on ads, leaflets and leafleting, etc.
supporting its candidate.

Of course out of town donations can’t be banned, but LWV doesn’t include these donations in its beefed-up disclosures.

These and many more reasons I listed above is why the LWV proposal doesn’t come close to creating a level sensible playing field for candidates and shouldn’t be considered.




PaloAltoVoter
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 4, 2021 at 9:36 am
PaloAltoVoter, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 9:36 am

How about some changes to address the recent FPPC violations and getting around the spirit of the FPPC regulations?

Candidates pledge to take no more donations after the final reporting period (ie Kniss and Tanaka accepting large donations after the election was over). I am also concerned about the amount of money coming from non voters out of town. How about each candidate must post prominently on their home page the percentage of donations from Palo Alto voters vs non voters (including PACS). IEs should be tracked and reported by the press.

The oped proposal seems to target limiting Palo Alto voter donations at the expense of candidates backed mostly by our local voters. I’m glad most commenters see that clearly.

Finally if there was a voluntary limit $30,000 seems way too low given elections in the last ten years. Set it similar to some other cities at higher limit but where candidates can still reach the population. Maybe $75000. That might maintain a more level field even with IEs
Finally , can Palo Alto make these non partisan races not allow party endorsements or donations?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 4, 2021 at 10:14 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 10:14 am

Let's nor forget that Ms Kniss knows all about donation disclosure laws as was made clear by the way she ran out the clock when accused of campaign disclosure irregularities.

Is her recent move her way of atoning for her past mistakes?


PaloAltoVoter
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 4, 2021 at 12:11 pm
PaloAltoVoter, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 12:11 pm

Isn’t Gail Price the current president of Palo Alto Forward? Why didn't she mention that?


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 4, 2021 at 12:24 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 12:24 pm

@Palo Alto voter – I think local elections are partisan, especially when a candidate is seeking local office as a stepping stone to higher office. Berman is a perfect example of how this plays out. During his run for CC, our mailboxes were stuffed with glossy and expensive campaign mailers. Name recognition worked and he was elected. Next thing you know, he's running for the Assembly. And then, more mailers. And another win - that time over an arguably more qualified candidate, a woman, who didn't have the same level of party support.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.


Fred Balin
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 4, 2021 at 3:00 pm
Fred Balin, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 3:00 pm

Editorial Note: Not thrilled with the 2K PA Online character limit. Ergo, Part 1 below:

The concept and proposals in the guest opinion are valid and worthy of the public’s and the city council’s serious consideration … once again.

At the top of the list is voluntary expenditure limits. In Mountain View, which has had such an ordinance on the books since 2000, at the time a candidate files nomination papers with the city clerk, she or he is advised of the voluntary limit and files a statement of acceptance or rejection. That choice is made public, and voters can factor it into their own decision-making calculus.

It is important to note that the expenditure limit in Mountain View not only includes monetary contributions, but also non-monetary contributions, aka “in-kind” contributions. The latter includes goods and services, which in Palo Alto city council elections span everything from supporters’ “coffee” and event refreshments to professional services (e.g., consulting and design) to picking up the tab for an expensive mailer. Mountain View includes these non-monetary contributions within their voluntary expenditure limit and Palo Alto should as well.

Second in importance is a limit on the size of donations from a single outside source. While expenditure limits must be voluntary, contribution limits can be set by a municipality below the absurdly high $4,900 legal ceiling. My personal limit continues to be $250, and I see no reason why a viable candidate (i.e., someone with roots in the community and whose foremost concern is the public good) should need more. Of far greater importance is the sweat equity of resident-to-resident: walking, talking, emailing and distributions; gatherings via virtual meetings at farmer’s markets, in parks, along neighborhood streets and in retail establishments.

-- to be continued ... I hope.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 4, 2021 at 6:03 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 6:03 pm

@Fred Balin, thanks. Is there any way to quantify the value of non-monetary aka in-kind donations. With rents so high giving someone office space would run into many thousands of dollars each year depending on how many people. I think Silicon Valley Leadership Group houses at least one of the PACs.

Looking forward to your next post.


Fred Balin
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 4, 2021 at 6:54 pm
Fred Balin, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 4, 2021 at 6:54 pm

In-kind contributions such as office space or services are to be listed at fair market value on FPPC disclosures.

Moving on to independent expenditures, i.e., outlays from groups not associated and not coordinating with a candidate. Voters know where the communications are coming from: unions, political organizations, local political action committee, as well fly-by-night endorsement mailers, easily recognized for what they are. In upcoming local elections we may see independent expenditures from groups that we do not recognize and therefore increased disclosure requirements could be a helpful measure for the public.

In 1996 nearly two-thirds of Californians voted to establish state and local contribution limits. The following year, the Palo Alto city council passed an ordinance, still on the books, (PAMC 2.40.070) establishing a voluntary expenditure limit of $14,000, but its implementation was suspended due to lawsuit, and later, when they could, our city did not reinstate it.

In mid-2007 council members Peter Drekmeier, who set a record for contributions and LaDoris Cordell, who accepted no monetary contribution, called for limitations. Encouraged to pursue this concept, they dutifully returned from the council’s Policy & Services committee with voluntary monetary contribution and expenditure caps: $300 and $30,000 respectively. But with the next council campaign in view, all other council members withdrew support. Hopefully that will not happen this time around.

I have written two guest opinions on this topic, the most recent in 2017, reviews the “arms race” in 2016. Web Link ).

We as residents need to curb this escalation and join the many forward-thinking California municipalities who have adopted local campaign expenditure, contribution, and disclosure requirements. Web Link

Thank you.


Peninsula Lady
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2021 at 11:56 am
Peninsula Lady, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2021 at 11:56 am

Re the statement about the US Chamber, the truth (fact) is that there is zero relationship between the US Chamber and the Palo Alto Chamber - zero. The local chamber is a wholly independent nonprofit and gets nothing from the national organization and has no political, legal, monetary or any other kind of connection at all.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 5, 2021 at 12:58 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2021 at 12:58 pm

No relationship between the US Chamber of Commerce and local communities?? Not according to THEIR web site as per the second sentence below Web Link

"We Work for You

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization. Our members range from the small businesses ***and chambers of commerce across the country that support their communities,*** to the leading industry associations and global corporations that innovate and solve for the world’s challenges, to the emerging and fast-growing industries that are shaping the future. For all of the businesses we represent, the Chamber is an advocate, partner, and network, helping them improve society and people’s lives."

Their in-kind contributions re legislative support and research, training, office space etc etc. does not come cheap. Check out some of their huge LOCAL buildings,


Paul Brophy
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 6, 2021 at 7:14 pm
Paul Brophy, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 6, 2021 at 7:14 pm

If you really want to reduce the role of money in Palo Alto elections, the simplest and most effective means is to switch to district elections. Instead of having to appeal to 65,000 residents, candidates will only serve 9,000 citizens. Ads in the local papers and mailings will matter far less than getting neighbors to support you and to walk the streets on behalf of your candidacy.


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 6, 2021 at 9:14 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 6, 2021 at 9:14 pm

Consider four questions. 1. What is the problem you're trying to solve? 2. Does this problem demonstrably exist? 3. Is the proposed solution effective? 4. Does the proposed solution have undesirable side-effects?

From what I see here, the answer to #1 appears to be "money corrupts the campaign process". Of course this can be true. However, as commenters have pointed out, given the past positions of the people involved, there is a risk that the true answer to #1 is "money is preventing the campaign process from yielding the outcome I want".

Based on Angie's link, my take on question #2 is "maybe". The actual split of large contributions seems close, and it's not clear they affected the election outcomes. Money matters marginally, but it doesn't make up for an unsuccessful candidate. Fred's link is crucial to understand the context.

Regarding #3, I'd guess disclosures are ineffective if they don't exist before people start voting. Fred, what's the timeline for the disclosures we're discussing here? As for voluntary campaign limits, they put candidates into a Prisoner's Dilemma. I'm glad to see they've been respected in Mountain View, though my recollection is that they haven't been successful in other contexts.

As for #4, one side-effect that concerns me is the biasing effects of rule changes. We're in the midst of national furor about voter suppression, and much of it revolves around rules that have modest, but significant and intentional, effects on the outcome of close elections. If allowing large contributions results in representatives that more-accurately reflect the opinions of people who live in Palo Alto vs. people who live elsewhere, I might be OK with that. I would prefer reducing the influence of money overall, but I don't find it acceptable to do that at the expense of representing local concerns accurately.

Paul, I like your suggestion, but contributions cross district boundaries, and so do slates.

Yes, the 2K char limit is annoying.


Nancy Neff
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 7, 2021 at 8:26 am
Nancy Neff, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 8:26 am

Allen, thank you. Other thoughts on your questions:
1. Money can prevent people from running/succeeding if they don't have access to large donors.
2. Interviews with some potential and past candidates indicate yes, it's a problem.
3. The proposed change to disclosures has to do with independent expenditures, not candidate disclosures, where timing is still a problem that will require further study. The disclosures are printed on the ads, or spoken on robocalls, written in a text, linked in an online ad, etc., so people see them throughout the campaign.
4. I think that reducing large contributions from everywhere -- because the donation limits apply to persons, corporations, LLCs, political parties, or any groups -- should help with representing local concerns from a wider variety of people, because the importance of smaller donors is increased.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 7, 2021 at 9:15 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 9:15 am

Since there's been a huge, prolonged problem with candidate disclosures and the years it takes the the election commission tasked with protecting the integrity of our elections managed I wonder why this isn't a top priority.

Many of us still recall how the elctions commission slow-walked its investigation into the campaign irregularities of Ms. Liz Kniss until she'd served out her term. Only then did we find out about the "late" contributions from developers that we just under the maximum required to be discloses.

It's the height of irony that our former mayor who keeps grooming pro-development acolytes is the one championing this initiative!


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 7, 2021 at 1:04 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 1:04 pm

Hi, Nancy. Thanks for the followup!

So it sounds like there's anecdotal evidence. That can be suggestive, but it's hard for those of us who haven't seen it to interpret. Did anyone go on the record?

I'm a little skeptical about the effectiveness of piecemeal disclosures as you described. Most voters won't see all of them (particularly if mailings, online ads, etc. are targeted). I know I'd rather see the information aggregated. Was a requirement for mandatory real-time reporting considered? If the raw data is available to the public, then aggregation is an easy problem to solve.

As far as contribution limits go, there is one data-driven experiment that would be helpful. If the limits had been in place for the last three or four elections, how would the donations for each candidate have been reduced, and how would the proportions donated to each faction change? Perhaps someone went through this exercise already to help choose the limits; if so, what were the results?


Douglas Moran
Registered user
Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2021 at 4:51 am
Douglas Moran, Barron Park
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 4:51 am

During the 2020 City Council Election, I did an analysis of the contributions to all the candidates as of the late September reporting deadline -- September 24 for contributions through September 19 -- and published it in my blog "Examining Candidates' Donations" (Web Link
This is the most important set of these reports because voters start returning their ballots in early October and consequently it reflects how much money the campaign has to work with during the vital period of mid-September through mid-October. Of course, this would not reveal planned spending by IECs -- Independent Expenditure Committees aka PACs. Nor would it reveal the various schemes that candidates can use to delay reporting of contributions and expenditures until later.

Note: I did not do an updated analysis because the next campaign reports were too close to the election to expect that analysis to have enough impact to justify the effort.

On IECs: That blog references a blog from the 2014 Council Campaign where a self-described Independent Expenditure Committee ran an advertising blitz during the final week of the campaign. The ads attacked the slow-growth candidates and supported the pro-development candidates. Most/all of the IECs supporters were prominent supporters of the pro-development candidates, including members of their campaigns. That included Gail Price, the author of this Op-Ed.
That blog: "A reprehensible political ad" (Web Link of 02 November 2014.

Under the advocated contribution limits -- individual and total -- most campaigns would not have the resources to respond. That 2014 IEC campaign spent only $7270, but that was 24% of what is being advocated as the spending limit for campaigns. No campaign can afford to reserve 25-50% of its budget for IEC-funded attacks.


Douglas Moran
Registered user
Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2021 at 4:58 am
Douglas Moran, Barron Park
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 4:58 am

In my comment above, the site's software added to the URL what was supposed to be the closing parenthesis. If you click on the link, you will need to trim those characters.


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 8, 2021 at 9:37 am
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 9:37 am


Debate and idealism are the foundation of our democracy. These exchanges must evolve to several clear policy issues and then be validated by legal experts who specialize in Calif law. I am not convinced that anyone has a grasp of the complexities of campaign controls.

I see almost no chance that Palo Alto in the short-term can enact any meaningful financial controls on candidates who can game any knee-jerk reforms sought by local experts who have their own legit bias. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Politics has always been a contact sport. The game is clearly getting rougher with signs of average voter fatigue. These circular, well-intentioned, but uninformed debates tire me out.


Eric Filseth
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 8, 2021 at 9:31 pm
Eric Filseth, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 9:31 pm

Multiple posts above on Real-Estate money, so I’ll comment on out-of-town money. Perhaps churlish to observe that of the $77,395 in out-of-town money in the 2020 Council election, 77%, went to the four candidates – Lee, Malone, Tanaka and Templeton – endorsed by Ms Price.

There may be a larger picture. Ms Neff says that “Interviews with some potential and past candidates indicate it's a problem.” One characteristic of the less-successful 2020 and 2018 candidates was they were more likely to have run as “Progressives” than other candidates (and been endorsed by the Democratic Party, despite a “nonpartisan” election).

Regional money skews unevenly. In 2020, the three candidates who ran as “Progressives” (including a memorable “Values” ad on that) raised 30-50% of their campaign funds from out-of-town. Whereas Kuo, for example, raised just 3% outside Palo Alto. In 2018 Wolbach, also a Progressive platform, raised $41,105 outside Palo Alto, nearly 50% of his total; DuBois’ figure was 4%. Statistically, it seems Regional money backs different candidates than local money.

Historically Palo Alto has mostly elected not Progressive activists but center-left pragmatists. In 2020 and 2018 the Progressives won generally around a third of the Palo Alto vote, with centrists closer to half - consistent with the 2016 Democratic primary, in which 66% of Palo Alto ballots went to Hillary, and 34% to Bernie. Campaign money or not, Palo Alto may simply not be a terribly Progressive town.

Hence the concern on Regional money: it may not only be non-neutral re “Palo Alto Values” as majority-held; it may in fact oppose them. I can’t think of many good reasons why anybody would spend $77K on an election in a town they don’t live in, but it’s clearly not a random distribution. Regional money shouldn’t be a path to minority-rule. Between residents and Regional special interests, most of us would take residents. Any limits on Palo Altans must address the out-of-town money issue.


Resident11
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Dec 9, 2021 at 7:54 am
Resident11, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Dec 9, 2021 at 7:54 am

I strongly agree with Eric. Either limit both or limit neither.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 9, 2021 at 8:52 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 9, 2021 at 8:52 am

Yes, thank you, Eric Filseth and Resident11.

I'm so tired to the transparent attempts of Gail Price, Liz Kniss et al to game the system for themselves and their friends from out of town who only care about developer interests, not the benefit of us, the residents, voters and taxpayers.

Funny, how a life-long Democrat like me can't get a response from our county Democratic party when I contact them politely questioning their agenda, endorsements and priorities. As has been noted repeatedly, it's not your father's Democratic Party any more.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 12, 2021 at 11:13 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 12, 2021 at 11:13 am

I think many, maybe even most, Americans are fed up with the role money plays in elections at every level. The results are terrible, regardless of political affiliation. This local effort would be far more credible if it originated from a different source. Kniss is a seasoned, successful politician. Given her history with campaign violations and Price's connection to PAF, I am surprised she didn't anticipate that many in this community would question the motivations driving this effort.

Allen Akin defined the situation perfectly when he wrote " . . . given the past positions of the people involved, there is a risk that the true answer to #1 is "money is preventing the campaign process from yielding the outcome I want".

It will be interesting to see who Kniss and Price endorse next election.


PeersParent
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Dec 14, 2021 at 1:50 pm
PeersParent, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Dec 14, 2021 at 1:50 pm

I'm still confused about the resistance to this. What Eric laid out about out-of-town funds... that would also be limited! Of course. That's the point. Limit it all. We all do better when there is less money in politics. No matter your values, priorities, alignments. Why would we be against more transparency and fewer dollars?
Sounds like the fact that it originated with the League of Women Voters is a sticking point. Yes, Liz is currently president. But this push aligns completely with the LWV priorities. Which are all about democracy, education, and political engagement. I hope we all support those goals.

I hope we can continue this conversation and find a way to reduce the cost of running a campaign and increase the transparency of who is behind candidates and positions.


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 15, 2021 at 11:38 am
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 15, 2021 at 11:38 am

@PeersParent: If the average resident's donation is different from the average non-resident's donation, then enforcing a limit causes the overall percentage of donations to shift, possibly even changing the priority between residents and non-residents. (As Nancy Neff said above, "There is a balancing act for how low to put the threshold." I assume this is one of the reasons.)

As a drastically-simplified example, suppose there's one resident who donates $1000, and two non-residents who donate $250 each. The status quo is $1000 (67%) of funds come from residents and $500 (33%) from non-residents. Now impose a $250 limit. The new distribution is $250 (33%) from residents, and $500 (67%) from non-residents. If you believe that money makes a difference in campaigns, then you also have to acknowledge that changing the balance of money makes a difference in campaigns, so this is a real problem.

I asked if anyone at LWV had done this analysis on the real data to see what the change might be. So far there's been no reply, which is concerning.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 15, 2021 at 6:40 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 15, 2021 at 6:40 pm

"I asked if anyone at LWV had done this analysis on the real data to see what the change might be. So far there's been no reply, which is concerning."

But typical of the proponents' attitudes to those pesky residents who challenge their logic and their claims. See also "no traffic problems in Palo Alto" and long-standing refusal to respond to specifics that undercut their positions like the fact that continued office development just might be problematic.


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