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Author: Don Obrien

Is campaign finance by city employee unions really the right way to govern? – Pasadena Star News


Reading Kris Ockershauser’s note on a Pasadena political dust-up while traveling last week, I was nodding along in agreement with her analysis, but later realized I had been a little sketchy on the details.

Because at first I thought that there was a movement afoot for the City Council to comply with a new state law that would limit local campaign spending to $4,900 an election cycle.

“OK,” I thought to myself before my second cup of coffee, “that’s a bit harsh — but doable. It’s not like you have to do radio and TV buys. There are about 20,000 people in each of the seven council districts, far fewer than half registered voters. So you print up some fliers and go door-to-door and hold a few neighborhood gatherings. With a budget of almost five grand. No problem.”

On a second reading, I realized my error. Assembly Bill 571 is a state law that took effect in January that limits campaign contributions to $4,900 per contributor during an election cycle.

So if you’re a rich lawyer, you go to 10 of your rich lawyer besties, each of whom write you a check for $4,900, and you’ve got almost 50 grand for said campaign, which turns those fliers into four-color glossies  you can afford to mail rather than carry around the district to slip under screen doors.

Even so, Pasadena council campaigns have gone over that $50,000 line over the years. And everyone knows — or everyone should know — the extraordinary negative and corrupting effects of truly big spending by public employee unions and other vested interests on officeholders.

It is precisely the same as any of the rest of us being able to write huge checks to our own bosses that help keep them in their job. When the time comes for us to ask for a big raise, our bosses would have been corrupted — by us. And we’d get essentially any raise we’d demand.

That’s why, if we were truly savvy about the best way forward for our cities in the San Gabriel Valley and Whittier areas, when we saw that a candidate had won the coveted endorsements of their local police and firefighter unions, we’d run with our votes to somewhere far away.

We’d seek out candidates who specifically noted they weren’t endorsed by public employee unions.

Alas, few candidates are so bold. And the sad fact is that many of our semi-volunteer local public servants and challengers who are endorsed by City Hall unions are otherwise the best candidates on the ballot. So we hold our nose and vote for them.

In Pasadena last week, on a 7-1 vote, the City Council took advantage of a legal loophole in AB 571. They chose to override the rule from Sacramento and set the campaign contribution limit from an individual at — infinity. No limit at all. (Union and other group contribution limits will be discussed separately.)

“We would get back to the campaign contribution practice in place before the state law was imposed on local jurisdictions,” Mayor Victor Gordo was quoted as saying in a Pasadena Now story. “All campaign finance disclosure materials under our system are posted online and are available to the public.”

The only brave council member to vote no was newcomer Jess Rivas. “I wouldn’t support unlimited contributions. Personally, I think that the state limit balance is not so small,” Rivas said. Brava, Councilmember Rivas!

Careful observers will note that Rivas, appointed to the central Pasadena council seat vacated by Gordo when he won the mayoral race, is also the only one on the council who’s never had to raise the money it takes to mount a successful campaign.

And I hear Mayor Gordo when he notes that for challengers especially, large sums have to be raised and spent just to get your name out there.

But I also hear Kris Ockershauser’s argument that hearing incumbents talking about “transparency and sunshine” when the police union’s pay negotiations with the city will be held next spring, just before the June elections, is a stomach-turning example of “the Pasadena Way with our tax dollars. … PPOA gave $47K to council members for the last election.”

That’s the Pasadena Police Officers Association. As a recent Joe Matthews column headline had it, “The police unions are looting our cities.” Is this really the right way to elect a government?

Write the public editor at lwilson@scng.com.



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