At the March 11 Livermore City Council meeting, council members discussed the adoption of measures that could affect the election process for council members, and also referendums and initiatives. At the Council’s request, staff presented amendments to the city’s Municipal Election Code.
The first amendment encourages candidates for elected city offices and local independent expenditure committees (PACS) to voluntarily pledge and subscribe to the basic principles of decency, honesty and fair play set forth in the code of Fair Campaign Practices in the California Elections Code. This was moved by Councilmember Bob Woerner, seconded by Mayor John Marchand, with councilmember Trish Munro voting yes. Councilmember Bob Carling voted no; Councilmember Bob Coomber was absent. Staff will create language for a final vote at a subsequent meeting.
The second amendment asked proponents gathering signatures for local initiatives and referendums to submit their talking points to the city in order for the city to check for factual accuracy. This was removed from consideration after council discussion.
During the citizens forum, John Lawrence strongly recommended that the council pass both amendments. He noted courts and councils have very strict regulations to follow regarding their activities, but that is not the case for others. It is important for the public to know what candidates and their supporters are doing and where their funding is derived.
Although Jeff Kaskey agreed that candidates and PACs should voluntarily subscribe to the code of fair campaign practices, he noted, “Just last year, we had a local independent expenditure committee attacking the character of two candidates – not their issues, or their experience, but their character.” He stated that the code forbids character defamation. He also noted that asking city staff, who serve at the council’s pleasure, to be unbiased fact arbitrators in matters where the city has taken a public position, puts staff in a difficult position with a clear conflict of interest.
Brent Siler felt that having a voluntary ordinance won’t really address what will be said or done. This should be addressed legally.
Asa Strout commented that the amount spent by candidates and organizations on the election and measures was not known until the end of January. He strongly encouraged reporting requirements be available faster, even up until the last day before the election. Make them easier to read so the public will know what the election campaign financing is all about and where the money is coming from.
Joan Green read a statement from Jan Brovont who could not attend the meeting. In it, Brovont asked, “Will the city and any group opposing a referendum be required to submit their opposing facts to the group responsible for the referendum? Where is the transparency if they do not?”
Evan Branning spoke in favor of more transparency. Fact checking, monies contributed should be timely. Making the amendments voluntary is difficult to enforce. “This is asking for people to agree to be their best selves and hoping they will do that.”
Woerner discussed the fact that as candidates we are asked voluntarily to sign a code of conduct, and we do that. Enforcement is not the issue. If somebody is going to be unethical, they will be. Under the first amendment, people have the right to lie and they do. Under the elections code, every person is guilty of a misdemeanor who is involved in circulating information that leads to signatures by voters for or against an initiative, referendum or recall petition, if the information is inaccurate.
Carling related that he was in favor of playing by the rules for individual candidates and nothing more. We don’t need to further burden the staff with another ordinance around the groups that gather signatures or a referendum.
Munro also had concerns about asking the city to adjudicate. “Let’s go with what we can do, which is to increase the rules around reporting.” She continued that the election did work and over three-quarters of citizens supported the candidates and the proposals as presented.
Marchand remarked that the council was responsible for the city. The residents should have the best information they need to make informed decisions. He queried City Attorney Jason Alcala whether reporting by local candidates or PACS could be regulated.
Alcala replied that if an item were brought up as a matter initiated, the city does have the ability to adopt local campaign requirements, so long as they don’t conflict or prevent filing the required statements with the state.
Carling supported Munro, stating that the citizens did agree with the decisions the council made. He asked if PACs had to register. Alcala replied that registering was required in the initial campaign filing statement.
Woerner responded that if we don’t have voluntary codes of conduct for PACS, then we don’t need it for candidates either. Why should we have it for one and not the other? We should approach staff concerning what we can and can’t do when signatures are acquired through false information. It also is important to request information regarding options with respect to timely and transparent reporting.