Berkeley City Council to consider election reforms

Evan Walbridge/File
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, shown here campaigning for the Berkeley City Council District 7 seat in the 2010 elections, has agreed with an amendment that would impose a penalty on candidates who fail to file campaign expenditure reports.

The Berkeley City Council delayed voting on election reform amendments submitted by a commission at the council’s Tuesday meeting.

Five amendments to the Berkeley Election Reform Act submitted by the Fair Campaign Practices Commission were delayed after Mayor Tom Bates said the reforms left him with questions and needed further examination.

“There should be no hurry to adopt this because it won’t apply until June of 2012, so we have plenty of time to understand the details of the ordinance,” Bates said. “There is no real reason to rush to make a decision when in fact there were lots of unanswered questions.”

According to Steve Wollmer, chair of the commission, the amendments serve to close gaps in the act — which was approved by Berkeley voters in 1974 — by providing more public disclosure about campaign practices and connecting campaign speech with those entities funding it.

“We want a piece of communication or an advertisement used in a campaign to list the people who contributed $2,500 or more listed on actual communication,” Wollmer said.

Bates said the council needed more time to review details in the five amendments, such as the font and color of the list of campaign contributors on lawn signs. The commission has been working on these amendments since it held a public hearing in October 2009.

Another amendment would enact a $10 per day penalty for candidates in an election who fail to file a report detailing campaign expenditures. While Bates said he feels this penalty is far too low, Councilmember Kriss Worthington was in agreement with the commission’s recommendation.

“Right now, we have policies on the books that you’re supposed to turn in your report, but if you don’t turn in your report, the only thing that happens is you get a letter next month saying you didn’t turn in your report,” Worthington said. “There’s no incentive for if somebody misses filing to make them file it.”

The commission also proposed that campaign committees report any independent expenditures — defined as an expenditure not coordinated with a candidate or a proponent of a measure — of $1,000 or more within 24 hours to the City Clerk’s office and all other campaign committees if received during the last 30 days of the election.

Wollmer said these amendments would establish procedures to ensure a timely disclosure of campaign funds, as the 1974 ordinance was made in an era before email and the widespread use of absentee ballots.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said he agrees with recording campaign expenditures with the City Clerk’s office but that it is unnecessary to notify other parties of campaign expenditures. Worthington, however, agreed with the commission’s proposed amendment that adds a time constraint on the disclosure of information.

“I think the intention of the Berkeley Election Reform Act is to give the public more information, and big corporate interests have found a loophole,” Worthington said. “If they wait until right before the election, then the word doesn’t get out to the public about what they’re doing.”

The commission was created by voters in a 1974 initiative in order to administer the ordinance. Commission members are appointed by the City Council, and in order to pass any election reform amendments, a two-thirds approval is required from both entities.

“Rather than having the City Council set our policies and purposes, we respond and act on the purposes established under the initiative,” Wollmer said. “There’s an inherent conflict here — the citizens determined that it was necessary to determine political practices and finances, and the council is a feature of political practices.”

Wollmer said at the council meeting the commission was not given adequate time to present its amendments. The commission plans to hold a workshop in September for council members and commission members to discuss the election reform amendments.