Huge contributions fueling local campaigns for public office are now prohibited in Mountain View, after the City Council voted 5-2 last week to cap contributions at $1,000 each election cycle and set strict reporting requirements for independent committees.
The city's ordinance, which takes effect next month, bars City Council candidates from accepting contributions in excess of $1,000 from an individual donor. Candidates who do not opt into the city's voluntary spending limits will be subject to even tighter restrictions, and can only accept contributions of up to $500.
Councilwomen Pat Showalter and Lisa Matichak both opposed the campaign rules, calling them unnecessary in a city where election spending has been modest and candidates have largely adhered to optional spending limits. In the 2022 election, all City Council candidates vowed not to spend more than $27,094.
Mountain View is updating its campaign contribution rules following the passage of AB 571, new state regulations that prompt cities to either adopt spending limits or accept the state's default limit of $4,900. Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, put forth the bill as a solution to rampant campaign spending in small local elections, with some contributions exceeding six figures.
In his rationale for the bill, Mullin wrote that some of these megadonors have business before the local government, and that it contributes to a "serious risk of actual or perceived corruption."
Under the new campaign rules, candidates will have 30 days to return money that runs afoul with the city's newly adopted limits before facing a penalty.
In addition, independent campaigns that spend at least $500 supporting or opposing candidates and measures in Mountain View will have to file disclosure statements with the city. These independent expenditures must also follow both state and local rules related to disclosing top contributors that have funneled money into these committees, which has been a problem in past elections.
Those that spend less than $500 within 90 days of a local election will be off the hook, which city officials say is a measured way to enforce the spirit of the ordinance without overwhelming staff.
"This approach improves transparency in local elections while striking a balance with the practical needs of staff resources for enforcement of the local ordinance and allows campaign communications below the threshold amount without reporting or disclosures," according to a staff report.
While council members were largely on board with the independent committee rules, there was less consensus at the April 12 council meeting over the campaign limits. Showalter said the voluntary spending limits have been "exceedingly effective" at making a run for the City Council relatively affordable, and have suppressed election spending to well below that of other local cities. She said the existing rules are really the backbone of campaign reform, and that the city rarely sees contributions above $1,000.
"I'm not so sure that this contribution limit is really very important, because I think that the spending limit ... is what really makes the difference," Showalter said.
Matichak raised concerns that this would be extra work for the city to prevent something that hasn't been a problem up until now.
"I feel like we're adding extra burden to staff to monitor and address campaign contributions that I don't think are an issue," she said.
In the absence of local spending limits, however, the city would revert to the state's standard limit of $4,900 for individual contributions, an amount that makes sense for higher office and half-million dollar campaigns but seems excessive for a local City Council race, said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. She said it's not that much of a challenge to hit the spending cap with contributions of $1,000 or less.
Mayor Lucas Ramirez said rampant campaign spending isn't a problem until it becomes one, and that he supported having regulations in place for when candidates find it easier to ignore the voluntary limit in order to outspend opponents. Plenty of other cities have spending limits that are not adhered to, he said, and it leads to people spending astronomical sums of money to bolster a campaign and win at the ballot box.
"I like the idea of a contribution limit for when that happens," he said.