Should Humboldt County limit campaign donations to $500 per donor?
As it stands, local candidates running for public office may solicit or accept up to $1,500 in campaign contributions per donor per election cycle, a limitation that was approved by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors a little over eight years ago. During today’s meeting, Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone sought to take the county’s existing ordinance one step further and limit campaign contributions to $500 per donor to level the playing field among candidates.
The existing ordinance aims “to reduce the influence of large contributions to ensure that individuals and interest groups continue to have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in electing county candidates and to maintain public trust in governmental institutions and the electoral process,” according to its text. Even still, Madrone said he had “identified several places” where change would be beneficial.
“Some folks are able to raise really big money with a lot of $1,500 donations,” Madrone said. “Others are not able to raise that kind of money. So my thought was, there [are] a lot of really incredible people out there in our community and I’m sure that some of them are daunted to even consider running because of the cost to run, pay for ads and all that kind of stuff. I just thought it would level the playing field a little better to make it $500.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell said she “pulled campaign contributions” and found that each member of the board had received individual donations that exceeded $500 per donor, aside from Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson whose information was not available, though Bushnell did not explain why.
“I’m wondering why, now that your election’s over, Supervisor Madrone, you [would] bring this forward?” Bushnell asked.
“That’s a good question,” Madrone replied. “I’ve been thinking about this for a number of years. I didn’t bring it forward simply because I’m not running again. Even if I was running again, I would support that $500.”
Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo asked Madrone if he could explain the “very confusing escalation clause” outlined in the existing ordinance that allows for increased campaign contributions under special circumstances.
According to the ordinance, “In any election cycle where independent expenditures totaling more than $10,000.00 are made to support or oppose any candidate for county office, the $1,500.00 limit imposed by this section shall be increased to $5,000.00 for all candidates running for the same seat.” In such an instance, no candidate would be allowed to accept any contributions that “would cause the total amount contributed by such person to such candidate … to exceed $5,000.00.”
Madrone said he wasn’t familiar with the case law surrounding independent expenditures but noted that “there was more than $10,000 spent [in] one the races” during the last election. “Part of the problem is there’s also a clause that you have to report those things … not only to the elections office, but also to the other candidates in any particular race, and that hasn’t been getting adhered to by independent expenditure individuals.” He suggested county staff look into the matter further.
Speaking during public comment, Sheriff William Honsal utilized the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“As someone who’s ran two campaigns, you know, it is a pain to raise money,” Honsal said. “And to have a campaign that goes countywide is very expensive. One thing that I think you need to also realize is … it is expensive to advertise and to run any kind of media during [presidential election years] as opposed to off years. The sheriff just got moved to the presidential election and … when that election does happen, it’s going to be very expensive.”
Going back to the board, Bushnell reiterated that she didn’t see any reason to change the existing ordinance.
Arroyo said she didn’t know what the limit should be, “whether it’s $1,000 or something different,” but felt as though the campaign contribution limit should be lower than $1,500.
“I talk to people all the time who are interested in running for office who are not politically well-connected but are interested in making a difference or in serving their community, who are terrified about the idea of having to raise so much money to compete,” Arroyo said. “I don’t know what the right answer is … but if people feel that the expectation is a little bit lower and easier to be on the same footing as others, I believe that could potentially encourage more people to run for office.”
Wilson’s comments focused on the outdated language of the ordinance. “Instead of ‘his or hers’ we can just put ‘candidate’ and modernize the language.” Wilson also poked fun at a requirement listed in the ordinance that required a candidate to communicate with the Registrar of Voters via telegram.
Returning to Arroyo’s earlier question about independent expenditures, County Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters Juan Pablo Cervantes said staff would have to look at the reporting requirements outlined by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and report back to the board.
“Independent expenditures have their own reporting structure,” he said. “They file forms in the same way that y’all do when you receive contributions or make expenditures. That’s the mechanism that this ordinance relies on. So yeah, [staff would] have to look at that ordinance or that piece of FPPC code that impacts that.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn questioned whether looking into the matter further was a proper use of staff time. “Is this really where we want to send our staff when we’re looking at what’s going on around our county?” he asked. “Every minute we spend on staff time takes away from building improvements, mental health, homeless[ness] … I’d like to be more selective on what we’re spending our staff time on.”
Wilson emphasized that “the influence of money in our democracy is always an issue” and is “something we have to continuously work on.” He noted that the campaign limit is one issue, but the “bigger glaring hole” has to do with independent expenditures.
Wilson made a motion to direct staff to look into the matter further and to report back with some recommendations and alternatives for the board. Arroyo seconded.
Bushnell echoed Bohn’s concerns surrounding the use of staff time, adding that she “feels really bad for staff at times.”
Cervantes acknowledged staffing issues in the county but said, “I don’t think this needs to be so complicated.”
“I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “I’d feel comfortable with my office spearheading the grunt work and passing on things to county counsel once it gets to a point where we need to see legal feasibility or liability.”
Bushnell was relieved.
“I feel much better with you saying this doesn’t need to be complicated,” she said. “I really appreciate that statement a lot.”
The board passed the motion in a unanimous 5-0 vote.