Benicia electoral campaign reform – E-Alert by Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

Do you want clean and fair campaigns?

Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 - present
Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – present

This question is asked because an item on the Tuesday agenda is focused on the goal for clean campaigns.

But while people will say they want clean and fair campaigns, they also need to work at it themselves.  For instance, what are the criteria for determining “clean” and “fair”?  Local government and to a lesser degree state rules require identifying who is paying for what.  But there are limits on what must be disclosed.  These are limits because of federal court decisions.

It is a pretty fair guess that lots of Facebook postings that are negative and against another candidate are likely to NOT be clean and fair, although legal.

How did we get here where we hear loud voices (what I mean is lots of mailers, Facebook and other) drowning out issues and character and record?  There used to be a federal FCC Fairness Doctrine.

The doctrine prohibited personal attacks (yep!).  Provided that broadcast radio and tv must provide equal access (like Fox News or MSNBC?).  In other words, if a candidate was on the air, their opponent would have equal access.

The Fairness Doctrine was eliminated during the Ronald Reagan presidency because the FCC commissioners (all appointed by the President) felt that there was too much “bashing” of the president.  Libertarians supported the elimination as well as the conservatives.

So how is that working for us now?  You will probably note that things are much worse because not only are the public air waves (hence the role of government because these are public air waves) and the internet is mostly private with limited federal rules and even fewer state and local rules (lobbyist do earn their keep and have been very successful so far in telling the feds, state and cities “hands off’).

Back to the basics, since local government is limited by law in terms of restricting the amount of money spent in campaigns (no authority) and limited in disclosure (some, but not good for  “dark money”), the individual voter has a lot of work to do and cannot depend on the feds, state or city to provide “clean and fair’ elections no matter how hard they try.

One approach that is available to California Cities is partial public funding for candidates in charter cities.  As I understand it, general law cities cannot do this due to a court decision in favor of Howard Jarvis folks – you know, those folks who took away local property tax decisions and gave the decision making to state assembly and senate members (known as Proposition 13) far fewer of them and less accessible to most people.  Neat trick to take local property tax and give the state authority how to spend it.  Probably the idea that local candidates could get public financing versus big spenders is a threat to the Jarvis peoples” influence.  Click here for a PowerPoint presentation by the League of California Cities that explains current 2019 election rules.

Again, back to the basics.  As I see it the individual has a very large responsibility to read reliable sources such as the League of Women Voters website for positions on various issues, background and so forth.  Be suspicious, very suspicious with negative ads, Facebook stuff and lots of literature with glossy photos and little actual position statements.

Also, if you care, come to the door when a candidate is on your doorstep.  I can’t tell you how many times I have knocked or rung the door bell, hearing voices inside but no one comes to the door.  If you want a face to face with a candidate wouldn’t you want to take advantage of the knock?

I have come to the conclusion that many people in local government and who live and work in Benicia do not know what elected official do.  Listing my committees below (which by the way is not up to date on the city website) tells you that I go to a lot of meetings.  But what decisions are made and how do those decisions affect Benicia.  This is a lot for a citizen to understand and follow, but during an election it seems critical to know what that elected person or candidate is doing.

From the city website this is what you would learn about my duties other than serving as presiding officer of the council meetings and setting the agenda.

      “Elizabeth serves in the following committee:

    • League of California Cities:  Northern Division member and former President.
    • Napa/Solano Area Agency on Aging – provides funds for Meals on Wheels, Fall Prevention, Ombudsman services and much more.
    • Solano Transportation Authority, chair one time – rotates through all cities
    • Solano Water Authority: meets once a year – funding mechanism for projects
    • Solano County Water Agency:  on Executive Committee and Water Policy Subcommittee and Legislative Subcommittee
    • Delta Subcommittee [hasn’t existed for several years]
    • Soltrans Joint Powers Authority – help form and set up, rotate chair with Vallejo mayor
    • Arsenal Investigation & Remediation Committee [done and very successfully]
    • Valero Water Supply Reuse Subcommittee [doesn’t meet]
    • MCE (Marin Clean Energy) – Executive Committee
    • North Bay Watershed Association”

What would be helpful is a voting record.  Right now there is no way to provide that without painful research meeting by meeting tally.  Maybe this is something the city should do to enhance “clean and fair’ campaigns.

Other ideas are for the city to provide is a voter guide – not everyone knows to seek out the League of Women Voter’s website and this information could be provided on the city website along with information about how to judge campaign literature, who is paying for what and how to use critical thinking strategy to separate the fluff from the position on real issues.  Click here for specific tools.

I have wandered around the issue before the council on Tuesday to try and frame what I think we all say we want – clean and fair elections – and the reality of what we can do locally and I think my message is this:

It is in large part up to you.  Do you homework.  Answer the knock. Use critical thinking tools above to judge candidates.

A wild card would be to volunteer to check voting records for incumbents, design a canvas questionnaire to get candidate on record for things like climate change, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, housing – how dense and how high?; active transportation – walking and biking – Clean Tech Expo, how to pay for water and waste water infrastructure, cannabis (develop questions so candidates can’t flip flop once in office).  In the end you want to know what the candidate cares about and can they be trusted to get there.

Don’t believe it when they say there is no difference between politicians.  Grit, ethical and trustworthiness are characteristics of some, but not all.