Oakland City Council members Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, candidates in the mayoral race, were unable Thursday to prompt amendments to the city’s campaign finance laws before the November 2 election. The proposed changes targeted fellow candidate Don Perata, whose campaign has already exceeded the $379,000 spending cap.
The issue was first brought to light when the Coalition for a Safer California, an independent expenditure committee, announced that it had spent $95,000 on Perata’s behalf. Under current city election law, this donation triggered the lifting of the spending cap for all mayoral candidates.
The revisions Quan and Kaplan were seeking Thursday, as they brought the issue to the council’s rules and legislation committee, would have included a requirement that candidates sign documents pledging in advance—under penalty of perjury—not to coordinate with committees to raise the spending cap, as Quan suspects Perata has.
“We’re absolutely challenging whether this was actually independent,” Quan said.
But the rules committee, of which Quan is a member and Kaplan is not, voted Thursday to conduct an investigation through the city’s public ethics commission, rather than sending the issue directly to the city council. Kaplan and Quan’s complaint will be investigated, but could take “weeks, if not months” before it’s formally addressed by the commission, ethics commission executive director Daniel Purnell said.
Kaplan and Quan argued that the changes should be made to apply retroactively to Perata’s campaign as the November 2 election approaches. Kaplan said she understands that there is a due process, but said the spirit of the campaign reform law is at stake. “There’s a law on the books,” Kaplan said. “It should be enforced. It’s apparently being violated. We should be remedying it now.”
Under the rules of the Oakland Campaign Reform Act—which all 10 mayoral hopefuls have agreed to follow—a candidate must limit his or her expenditures to $379,000 for the duration of the campaign. But there are a few exceptions to that limit. Under one of those exceptions, if an independent expenditure committee spends more than $95,000 dollars on the behalf of any one campaign, the spending ceiling is then automatically lifted for everyone.
Although Kaplan said she believes this exception runs counter to the original intent of the law, she also said that she was unsure Perata’s campaign had even met the requirements of the exception. “There’s no evidence out there in the actual world to suggest the trigger has been triggered,” Kaplan said. “Nonetheless, the candidate has already stated publicly in the press that they’ve already exceeded the expenditure cap.”
Quan had raised similar objections previously, in an announcement on the steps of city hall, where five candidates gathered to protest the Perata campaign’s expenditures and his donor’s supposedly limit-breaking donation. At the Thursday meeting, Quan asked city attorney Mark Morodomi whether an ethics commission decision is required before a candidate is allowed to exceed the spending limit.
“The law does not require any city body or entity to make a determination or declaration,” Morodomi said. “Is the cap lifted now? As a matter of law, I don’t know. It depends on whether or not some independent expenditure group has spent $95,000. If it has, then the spending ceiling is lifted. That’s the way the law is written.”
Records due to be released October 5—two official forms detail all substantial donations received by candidates—will confirm whether the spending cap has been lifted.
According Morodomi, the city attorney’s office contacted city council members, including Quan and Kaplan, last February 2010 to urge them to review the expenditure rules in the reform act. Morodomi said the council did not act upon the request. The Quan campaign has responded that the city attorney’s February recommendation was essentially an advisory to disregard the limits altogether.
The Perata campaign declined to comment, instead referring interested parties to Perata’s interview with Oakland North for his response to the controversy.
City council president Jane Brunner acknowledged Quan’s complaint and proposed the motion to send it to the ethics commission investigation rather than directly to the city council. When it came to a vote, only Quan voted against the motion. “They basically ducked it,” Quan said.
Brunner said she understands the request to make changes applicable for the upcoming election, but said that an amendment to the rules isn’t practically or legally feasible at this point. As the law stands now, she said, wealthier candidates have a financial advantage. “Personally, I think there shouldn’t be any independent committees,” Brunner said. “I think we should have public financing. We don’t have that, and we don’t have the laws to support that. Wealthy people get to spend.”