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By Joe Livernois
Monterey will become the sixth city on the Central Coast to impose limits on contributions to candidates in its municipal elections. Without a lot of fanfare, the City Council this week set the wheels in motion to cap individual contributions at $500.
The action comes after five candidates raised a total of more than $130,000 last year to run for several spots on the Monterey City Council. And some city leaders say they are alarmed that at least some of those contributions came in chunks from political action committees representing business interests on the Monterey Peninsula.
The concern, according to Councilman Alan Haffa, is that good potential candidates may lose their incentive to run for City Council if they know that political action committees will drop lots of cash to support their opponents.
But one councilman, Ed Smith, said that he doesn’t think money is an issue in Monterey municipal elections. He noted that he received twice the contributions that challenger Tyller Williamson got during last year’s campaign — about $47,000 to $23,500 — yet Williamson outpolled him on election day. They both won seats on the council, while the candidate who outspent them both by a couple of thousand dollars, former Councilman Timothy Barrett, lost the election.
Meanwhile, Monterey Mayor Clyde Roberson won reelection against challenger Bill McCrone without even bothering to set up a campaign committee and without raising any money.
“I’m still trying to figure out what the problem is,” Smith said on Tuesday, shortly before the City Council voted 4-1 to establish the limit. (The ordinance will be finalized in coming weeks.) “It feels like a solution in search of a problem.” Smith cast the lone “no” vote.
“The problem,” answered Councilman Dan Albert Jr., “is the public perception,” referring to a general belief that government at every level is unfairly influenced by money.
Fewer than 109 of the 482 cities in California currently have ordinances that limit contributions to their council candidates, according to Common Cause. In Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, only five cities have campaign contribution limits, including Capitola, Santa Cruz, Pacific Grove, Watsonville and Scotts Valley.
Only 15 counties in California, including Santa Cruz, impose campaign contributions and/or spending limits. In fact, the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors earlier this year raised its contribution limits by $100, to $500 per individual or organization, after learning that it had the lowest limits in the state. Two years ago Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams advocated the Board of Supervisors develop policies to limit campaign contributions in county supervisor races, but that effort appears to have fizzled out due to an apparent lack of interest among her colleagues.
Nicolas Heiforn, who researched California spending limits in cities and counties throughout the state for Common Cause, said he doubts those numbers have changed much since 2016. He said proposed legislation now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature would enact limits of $4,700 on cities and counties that have not adopted their own limits. That number — $4,700 — is the same contribution limit for campaigns for state office.
In Monterey, red flags started to be raised in 2016, after Dan Albert Jr. raised more than $53,000 to seek election against two incumbents, who together received contributions totalling just under $18,000.
Money continued to pour in to candidates during the 2018 City Council election. Six candidates were on the ballot last year. In the race for two council seats on the council, three candidates raised almost $119,000. One of them, Smith, generated at least 10 contributions in excess of $1,000 to his campaign, including money from local political action committees.
On Tuesday, Albert said that the city’s financial limits will change the way candidates approach their campaigns. “Rather than expecting big checks, we’ll need to go out and get more smaller contributions,” he said.
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