Taking inspiration from a similar law in San Francisco, the city of Berkeley could look into imposing campaign contribution limits on contractors doing business with the city.
At its meeting Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will vote on an item that would ask the city’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission to examine the possible implementation of a ban that would prohibit contractors from giving campaign contributions to candidates for city council and members of the Berkeley Unified School District’s Board of Education.
“Contributions by contractors do occur but relatively infrequently, but the fact that they occur, in my opinion, is enough to justify action,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who proposed the item. “It’s important to maintain the trust that citizens have in their elected officials.”
The largest concern, Arreguin said, should focus on developers and contractors who stand to make millions of dollars from decisions the council makes on land use.
Public officials and contractors in San Francisco, however, have found it difficult to comply with the new law — alleging that it is too cumbersome and hard to follow.
For instance, under the San Francisco ordinance, the onus is on the contractor not to give the donation, not the public official to refuse it.
However, Eileen Hansen, a former member of San Francisco Ethics Commission, said that stipulation should not be a significant problem.
“I don’t think it should be so difficult at all,” Hansen said. “It’s more … about educating people on the law.”
Also, many of the contributions that were considered illegal in San Francisco came from members of nonprofit organizations that have contracts with the city, according to Arreguin’s recommendation. Arreguin said he hopes to circumvent these issues by redefining who is encompassed in the term “contractors.”
Hansen said she thinks Berkeley ought to look to Los Angeles, not San Francisco, for pay-to-play politics regulation — saying that the San Francisco Ethics Commission lacked the proper power to enforce any kind of punishment for violations of its campaign law.
Los Angeles passed regulations banning contractor donations in March 2011.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington also expressed support for the issue, saying it would create a better overall image of the city for Berkeley citizens.
“In the instances it has occurred, it has sort of made people suspicious about Berkeley government, and all it takes is a small number of unethical-appearing things like this to really get people a bad impression of the whole city,” Worthington said.
Arreguin added that developers were also known for “bundling” their donations, with their spouse, contractors and employees donating money individually — amounting to a significant amount of money for running candidates.
Arreguin said that, if approved, the new election rule might not be implemented for this upcoming election year, as fundraising has already begun and will be wrapped up by the time this would be made into law. Nonetheless, he stressed how important he thinks it is that this be enacted to govern future city elections.
Jaehak Yu covers city government.