Wednesday, September 08, 2004

San Mateo, CA City Council On Course To Limit Campaign Contributions

As Erin Shebert reports in The San Mateo County Times, the San Mateo City Council is considering instituting contribution limits of $250 per individual donor for City Council elections. Three of the five members of the council support the idea, although two of those members are amenable to doubling the proposed limits to $500. A report due for review in November will also examine a cap of $15,000 on personal loans candidates may make to themselves.

Councilwoman Sue Lempert, who proposed limits last February, said at the time:
The idea is to shift the focus of elections away from money and get people to
campaign at a grassroots level.

City Council campaigns have tended to cost around $15,000 on average in San Mateo, although Councilman John Lee, the council's strongest opponent of the limits, spent nearly $40,000 in the 1999 and 2003 campaigns.

San Mateo isn't the first city in the county to explore contribution limits, as developers in many towns have used relatively large donations to get candidates elected to office who share their pro-development views. One such city, Belmont, has instituted $100 contribution limits for individuals.

The proponents of limits should be commended for taking action on an important issue for local democracy. The ability of a few wealthy interests to skew elections - the defining trait of a democracy - is always present when those interests are allowed to give big bucks to the candidates that they like. This can be especially true at the local level, where campaign dollars can go pretty far.

However, $250 is an amount that still threatens to muffle the voice of a substantial number of San Matean citizens. Not many people have $250 in their budget to give to a candidate, much less to candidates for all five seats on the City Council. Instead of raising the proposed limits further, the folks on the City Council would do democracy and their fellow San Mateans a good turn by passing lower limits this fall.

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