Council to consider Bernheim’s revised plan to limit campaign donations

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The Edmonds City Council on Tuesday night will consider a revised proposal by Councilmember Steve Bernheim to place a $500 limit on contributions to campaigns for city council and mayoral races.  In a memo accompanying the revised ordinance, Bernheim noted that he lowered the limit from $750 based on feedback he received from council members when the issue was originally discussed in a public hearing Jan. 26.

Upon advice of the City Attorney, Bernheim said he also changed how the ordinance would be enforced, making a violation of campaign limits a civil penalty rather than a criminal misdemeanor.

Bernheim’s memo also offered a response to other issues raised by councilmembers during the Jan. 26. meeting, including the following:

On Councilmember D.J. Wilson’s assertion that there will be costs associated with enforcing the proposal: “I agree. The cost, however, will be minimal: if there is a violation (the proof of which would appear in the public campaign contribution records of the Public Disclosure Commission), the offender would be tried in Municipal court in the same way as other civil violations of the Edmonds City Code. In any case, the cost of enforcement would be no more in any given case than the cost of enforcing similar civil ordinances today. ”

Regarding Wilson’s statement that a limit on contributions would increase the power of those who are independently wealthy and can contribute to their own campaigns: “While I agree with this statement, my proposal also decreases the power of those who are sufficiently wealthy to give large and extra-large campaign contributions to others. I would rather deal with the possible corruption of candidates who give lavishly to themselves rather than the possible corruption of candidates who receive lavishly from others.”

In response to Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas’ comment that the limit was “smoke and mirrors” because campaign finance reform requires a limit on the total amount a candidate can spend: “I am not now proposing a campaign expenditure cap as part of a public financing system because I think that’s a lot more complicated and expensive, and I’m not even sure that I agree that public financing of political campaigns is better, but I would listen to any proposal along those lines. I believe that a simple contribution cap can be implemented immediately while the merits of public financing are debated. Limiting the potential influence of large campaign contributors is not perfect reform, but is real reform and real protection against potentially outrageously large and influential contributions.”

Bernheim said he agrees with Councilmember Strom Peterson “that limits on individual campaign contributions give more power to wealthy individuals, with the proviso that the present absence of any limits on any campaign contributions gives “more power to wealthy contributors.” He added, however, that he disagrees with Peterson’s opinion that “if a limit were imposed, groups of businesses or unions would have a greater ability to contribute to political campaigns than would a grassroots collection of individuals because right now, businesses or unions can give unlimited amounts.”

“It was argued that the proposal would protect incumbents and wealthy individuals,” Bernheim wrote. “But it is undisputable that the current system protects incumbents and wealthy individuals. The question is not whether the wealthy and incumbents are protected or not by one system or another, but what degree of imperfection we are willing to accept. In a city with a population of 40,000 in 2010, I believe that a contribution limit of $250 or $750 protects incumbents, challengers, the poor and the wealthy adequately.”

And regarding Peterson’s assertion that the proposal reinforces the advantage given to incumbent candidates, who already have built-in name familiarity with voters, “this is true to the extent that a challenger would have a more limited ability to raise the overwhelming amount of cash that is typically necessary to topple an incumbent,” Bernheim said. “On the other hand, my proposal limits the power of the incumbent to raise unlimited amounts of cash to overwhelm an opponent.

“For the moment, I’d rather trust the proposed system that permits candidates to spend unlimited amounts of their own money rather than the present system that permits them to spend unlimited amounts from wealthy individuals, companies, and unions.”

The entire City Council agenda for Tuesday night can be found here. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Public Safety Complex, 250 Fifth Ave. N.

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