Benicia electoral campaign reform – report and reflections by Ralph Dennis

Council to vote this Tuesday, January 7

Ralph Dennis, Benicia

On January 7, City Council will discuss and consider recommendations for changes to Benicia’s three campaign ordinances – Chap. 1.36, Voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices, Chap. 1.40, Disclosure of Contributions and Expenditures in Candidate and Ballot Measure Elections, and Chap. 1.42, Contribution and Voluntary Spending Limits. Any recommendations adopted by Council would be brought back before Council in a first reading of the ordinance(s) to be amended.

The recommendations to be considered are the culmination of a process that began almost a year ago when City Council directed its Open Government Commission (OGC) to consider updates and amendments to the three ordinances. Council acted in part due to concerns raised during campaigns in 2018 for two Benicia Council seats. Numerous comments and suggestions for changes were submitted to Benicia city officials following that election season, including almost 60 from local individuals (including Council members), businesses (like Valero), and organizations such as the League of Women Voters.

The ad hoc committee appointed by the OGC reviewed these comments and suggestions and considered other recommendations on possible changes which arose during its meetings. The committee also heard from an expert on campaign finance law, who shared early on his suggestions on what the committee “could and couldn’t do” based on current laws and Court opinions. In simplified terms, for example, I understood that the committee couldn’t propose limits on expenditures and it couldn’t control content of issue ads. We could consider limits on contributions, plus we could address disclosure requirements for contributions and information funded by PACs, including information appearing through social media platforms.

In the end, and within the legally defined parameters that exist, the committee identified 12 recommendations to the OGC to update provisions in the three ordinances. The committee also presented two additional recommendations concerning public funding for campaigns and election security measures. The OGC accepted most of the committee’s recommendations and voted to submit them to City Council for adoption. The public funding and election security recommendations were not forwarded by the OGC, upon advice of the City Attorney that the issues were outside the scope of the direction provided to the OGC, and that either would need to be proposed through separate direction from Council.

The Staff Report presented to Council for the January 7 discussion incorporates most of the recommendations that originated from the ad hoc committee. Of those, the City Attorney recommends not adopting some of proposed changes and offers no comment on others. The proposed changes not supported by the City Attorney are because either the issue is already state law or cannot be done due to state law or federal Constitutional concerns. Absent persuasive legal advice from another source, it is difficult for me to argue against the City Attorney where he recommends not to adopt a proposed change. It seems to make sense (except for one, as noted below, relating to disclosures by organizations which endorse local candidates).

The remaining proposed changes in the January 7 Staff Report which have no comment from the City Attorney came from the Benicia community, presumably surviving the City Attorney’s legal review for their viability as an ordinance provision, and therefore should be strongly supported and adopted by Council. In particular, the three push-poll related changes to Chap. 1.40 help address specific concerns raised about polls taken in Benicia during the 2018 Benicia elections. In my mind, adding this language in Benicia’s campaign ordinances is the big takeaway from this review process. The updates requiring candidates to disclose their top three donors, that the ordinances apply to recalls and initiatives, and adding the option for a second public forum earlier in the election season, were also strongly supported by public comments submitted and should be adopted by Council.

The two additional recommendations on public funding of campaigns and election security should have been forwarded to the Council as well for consideration. As recommended by the ad hoc committee, Council should direct a review of (a) whether Benicia should consider public funding of campaigns, (b) examples of other municipalities that have enacted publicly funded campaigns, and (c) the pros and cons of such an ordinance. Council should also adopt a resolution concerning election security for voting processes and tabulation and acknowledging the work performed by the Solano County Asst. Registrar of Voters in this regard.

Remaining concerns: Are Benicia’s campaign ordinances being updated regarding the use of social media platforms during campaigns? State laws enacted during the past two Legislative sessions may address this need.

Also, the City Attorney recommends not to adopt the proposed change to Chap. 1.40 requiring membership organizations which endorse a candidate to disclose if the endorsement was voted upon by all of its members and to publish the questions asked of candidates seeking endorsement. He says “it could run afoul of various constitutionally-protected interests.” Council should seek a second opinion on this matter as there may be alternative legal views on the viability of the proposed amendment.

The proposed amendments to the campaign ordinances presented in the January 7 Staff Report are very much community-based proposals. Each one comes from suggestions submitted by community members. In every sense of the word, these are proposals from the Benicia community and deserve Council support and adoption.

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