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Holes in laws affect local races

No donation limits exist for independent committees

Posted: August 4, 2008 10:39 p.m.
Updated: October 6, 2008 5:01 a.m.
 

The state’s campaign finance laws that were created to ensure transparency in state and local elections have a few holes in them when it comes to Santa Clarita’s municipal election held every two years.

Candidates running for the Santa Clarita City Council typically set up their own committees where they accept contributions to pay for their campaign expenses like posters, mailers and phone calls. Businesses and individuals can each donate a maximum of $360 to a candidate’s committee.

In addition to the candidate-controlled committees, however, state law allows people inside and outside the Santa Clarita Valley to set their own independent committee with the intention of either supporting or opposing a candidate in a Santa Clarita City Council election. There is no maximum to how much money flows into that independent committee from businesses and individuals and there is no maximum on how much the committee can spend to help get candidates elected or ensure that a particular candidate doesn’t.

In the most recent City Council election last April, two independent committees raised a total of at least $49,000 and then paid for mailers asking voters to support particular candidates.

The Citizens for Integrity in Government collected $30,000 from G&L Realty Corp. — the private developer behind Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital’s expansion plans — and then paid $29,500 on campaign mailers supporting hospital proponent Laurie Ender.

The Committee for a Safer Santa Clarita collected $5,000 between March 23 and June 23 from two individuals: Diane Arpy Arklin of Canyon Country, and Mark T. Gates Jr. of Palo Alto. From January through June, the committee raised nearly $19,000. Expenses included payments for mailers for incumbent Bob Kellar and mailers and phone calls supporting candidate Bob Spierer.

The state law further allows most independent committees labeled as county and state committees to wait until July 31 — nearly four months after Santa Clarita’s election — to reveal who is giving the committees their cash.

The exception is, if a county committee like Citizens for Integrity in Government spends more than $1,000 within 16 days of Santa Clarita’s City Council election, the committee must disclose its expenditures and contributions immediately.

“Those 24-hour reports need to be filed in a way so it gets there the next day,” Deputy City Attorney Sarah Gorman told The Signal after the election.

As long as the committee doesn’t make a last minute expenditure, it usually doesn’t have to reveal its contributors until July 31.

Because of a conflict between Santa Clarita’s municipal code and state law, county and state committees also are not necessarily required to even file those disclosure forms at the Santa Clarita city clerk’s office.

“If they make a contribution to a candidate that has been involved in our election, we will notify them and ask them for a courtesy copy of their (semi-annual financial disclosure statement) because that is required in our municipal code,” City Clerk Sharon Dawson said. “But many of those committees are not aware of that requirement because they are required to file with the county and with the state. Many of them will go ahead and file the copy with us, though they are not required by state law.

“It’s these committees that can come in like that and we don’t know they’re out there until something comes through (the city clerk’s office),” Dawson said.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission has spoken out about these types of committees that influence elections of officials on the state level, calling the contributions “the giant gorilla in campaign finance.”

In a hearing on independent expenditure committees earlier this year, the FPPC’s Chairman Ross Johnson said, “The people may enact laws limiting direct contributions to candidates in order to avoid the possibility or appearance of undue influence over the candidate or office holder. But unlimited contributions are OK, the theory goes, because even though the money is being spent to benefit a candidate, it isn’t being given directly to him or her.”

In 2006, independent expenditures benefitting state legislative candidates totaled more than $23 million, which was a 6,144 percent increase compared with expenditures in the 2000 election. That November, voters passed Proposition 34 limiting direct contributions to candidates.

“It was their desire and expectation that fewer special interest dollars find their way into campaigns,” Johnson said. “But thanks to an orgy of independent expenditures, just the opposite has occurred.”

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