Times-Herald: Benicia council to discuss changes to campaign ordinances

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor: See also my article, “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. – R.S.]

Benicia council to discuss changes to campaign ordinances

By JOHN GLIDDEN, January 12, 2019 at 3:53 pm

BENICIA — The City Council will discuss Tuesday night whether to pursue possible changes to the city’s campaign ordinances.

The request, from Councilman Tom Campbell, comes after the November 2018 election which saw a special committee, primarily funded by the Valero Benicia Refinery and local unions, spend thousands of dollars supporting two council candidates and opposing a third.

City Hall will provide brief information on a model adopted by the city of Santa Clara, while also seeking additional direction from the Benicia council.

“One of the changes that could be made to Benicia’s campaign ordinances include a disclosure requirement for ‘dark money,’” city staff wrote in a report to councilors. “The city of Santa Clara adopted an ordinance to require disclosure of contributions of $100 or more by any organization that ‘affect or are intended to affect’ an election.”

The city’s 2018 election season turned interesting when the refinery and several trade unions began to fund a special committee with the lengthy name — Working Families for a Strong Benicia, a Coalition of Labor, Industrial Services Companies, Public Safety and Local Leaders Supporting Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and Opposing Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council 2018.

Largaespada and Strawbridge eventually went on to win the two open seats on the five-person City Council. The then-incumbents, Alan Schwartzman and Mark Hughes, both declined to seek re-election to the council.

Prior to inception of the committee, Valero paid for several political-themed phone calls to local residents, which the refinery said was used as polling data. Opponents of the calls, accused the refinery of attempting to influence the city’s election.

“Another change that could be made would be to require more disclosure related to polling. In the past election, the earlier telephone poll did not have disclosures like a campaign poll would have,” staff further wrote in the same report. “It may be possible to require disclosure after the poll is complete. The post poll disclosure would help mitigate any arguments about chilling First Amendment rights.

“From the recent experience,the name of the poll sponsor and the questions would be disclosure items the public would be interested in,” staff added. “Depending on the type of polling, polling is considered core political speech so regulations will have to be carefully drafted to avoid a problem.”

Benicia currently has three campaign related ordinances, including one which requires the disclosure of contributions and expenditures in candidate and ballot measure elections, and voluntary spending limits.

The Benicia City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday inside the Benicia City Hall, located at 250 East L. St.