How to make Benicia campaigns fairer and more transparent

Please attend Benicia City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 15, 7pm at City Hall.  If you can’t make it, send your thoughts by email.
Benicia’s CURRENT campaign ordinances can be viewed at Chapters 1.36, 1.40 and 1.42 are the main election ordinances. In particular, see Chapter 1.40 “Disclosure of Contributions and Expenditures in Candidate and Ballot Measure Elections.”- R.S.]

Possible improvements to Benicia’s campaign ordinance

By Roger Straw, January 13, 2019

The last Council election was dark.  Manipulated by corporate and labor interests using massive amounts of cash and smear campaign tactics, a single candidate was trashed, the voting public was deceived and a rational electoral outcome was smothered.

All four candidates denounced the actions of the Valero / organized labor Political Action Committee (the PAC “Working Families for a Safe Benicia to elect Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge and to defeat Kari Birdseye”).

In December, Benicia’s new City Council voted unanimously to review the City’s campaign ordinance.  The first discussion of possible changes will happen this Tuesday night, January 15, at 7pm at City Hall (see agenda and reports – PLEASE ATTEND!).

Many in the community have raised questions and made suggestions on how the City can get creative to prevent this kind of thing in our 2020 election.  Here are a few ideas I’ve heard, with some of my own wording and additions:

  1. Benicia’s existing campaign ordinance requires candidates to conduct their campaigns honestly. This does not evidently apply to outside PAC’s.  Should it?  PACs can, and have, lied without consequence.  Should an impartial City commission or staff person be authorized to call out lies?
  2. Should the candidate forum hosted by the Open Government Commission, and designed to counter last minute attacks and hit pieces, be moved back from the Saturday before the election to a date at least two weeks before the election?  Or to a date shortly after actions “inconsistent with the Benicia Code of Fair Campaign Practices” are noted by the Commission?
  3. Should the City be required to post the Open Government forum on its website soon after the event?
  4. The existing ordinance references various kinds of expenditures by outside PAC’s and requires PAC’s to identify who is paying for them. But the ordinance does not reference ads placed on computer platforms and social media accounts like Facebook or Google. Should these be included in the update?
  5. In the last election, city staff posted on the city website the various income and expenditure reports filed by candidates and PACs.  But staff did not offer the public ongoing cumulative summaries and final or near-final totals.  When asked for clarifications, staff  was unable to offer the public assistance in interpreting some of these documents, suggesting concerned residents should approach the FPPC.  Should we require better Benicia  staff oversight and interpretation of Forms 460, 465, 496, 497, etc.?
  6. Polling – the last election featured extensive polling paid for by an local corporation (Valero).  Data from those calls was fed to the Anti-Birdseye PAC and used by their consultants in setting campaign strategies. When a poll is paid for or designed by outsiders engaging in political activity in an attempt to influence a city election, should the polling company and/or the entity paying for the poll be required to disclose who is paying for the poll? And should we require the poll questions to be disclosed to the City to determine whether the poll itself is a campaign advertisement rather than a legitimate poll?
  7. Endorsements – Many groups make endorsements in local elections. But in some cases, those endorsements are made by a small group of leaders of those organizations without ever asking for the consent of their members.  In 2018, we heard from many upset teachers and others that the Napa-Solano Central Labor Council made endorsements without consulting local association members.  When a membership based organization makes an endorsement, should they first be required to actually poll their membership and let the majority of their members vote on an endorsement?  And should those membership results be made available for public review?  And if not, should the endorsement made in a membership organizations’s name by another entity be required to disclose that fact on a flyer or other campaign material?