Reforming Campaigns Isn't Easy

By Martin Snapp

The City Council took the first tentative steps toward public financing of city elections -- accent on the tentative.

After heated debate, council members gave up hope of coming to a quick consensus, instead directing city staff to draw up a list of options for the council's April 27 meeting.

The lawmakers will have to make an up-or-down decision at that meeting if the City Attorney's Office is to have enough time to draw up a ballot measure for the November election.

The measure, backed by political reform organization Common Cause, was introduced by Mayor Tom Bates. His wife, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, introduced a similar public financing measure at the state level the same day in Sacramento. Though there was widespread support for the idea in principle, the devil was in the details.

For example: Who's going to pay for it?

City Manager Phil Kamlarz said there are only two realistic sources of money to fund the program: parking tickets and property taxes. Councilman Gordon Wozniak criticized raising parking fines, calling it "very regressive." Councilwoman Betty Olds criticized raising property taxes, saying, "The burden should be on everyone, not just the homeowners."

Full-funding or matching funds?

"Matching funds rewards the people who are already best at raising money," said Councilman Kriss Worthington. "It just leverages their advantage."

"Full funding is actually an incumbent preservation act," countered Wozniak. "No challenger would be able to spend enough to overcome the advantages an incumbent always enjoys, no matter what Common Cause says."

Dona spring suggested funding challengers 120 percent of what incumbents are given.

"It'll even up the playing field," she said to underwhelming response from her fellow incumbents.

Councilwoman Miriam Hawley said the idea was good but the timing was lousy.

"I can't in good conscience ask the taxpayers to pay for our campaigns in a year when we cannot provide basic services to the public," she said. "This November, the voters are already going to be asked to approve taxes for the library, the schools and youth programs. I don't see anyone choosing this over them."

Wozniak said the real money scandal isn't high campaign costs; it's low council salaries.

"It doesn't pay enough to attract good, young candidates," he said. "That's why so many of us are so old. If we're going to put any money up, let's raise the mayor and council's salaries."

In other actions:

• The council increased Police Chief Roy Meisner's job benefits so he will now have the same deal he had when he was deputy chief. By a quirk in the law, he actually had to take a cut when he got the promotion -- an anomaly the council remedied.

• The city is making a major change to the way it conducts its annual "household cleanups." No longer will it deposit a huge Dumpster in various geographic areas on 10 specific summer-only dates, for depositing all the oversized stuff they refuse to collect the rest of the year.

Reason: Scavengers who go through the Dumpsters, cherry-picking the best stuff and leaving a mess behind.

Solution: This year, they're going to do it on an appointment basis. Instead of being confined to the summer months, residents can make an appointment for almost any Saturday. Each residential address will be allowed one appointment per year.

"This should disappoint the scavengers," said Public Works Director Rene Cardineaux.

See the article on Contra Costa Times website

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