At the Hollister City Council’s Dec. 13 special meeting, the council sought guidance from a legal consultant on reforming the city’s campaign finance laws. The discussion, postponed from the council’s Oct. 18 meeting, came on the heels of Dolores Morales’ District 3 election win on Nov. 2. Morales, who was sworn in at the beginning of the meeting, had raised over $14,000 more than her nearest challenger.
In particular, the council sought clarification of what could and could not be added to the city’s campaign finance ordinance. The council took no action and no future date was mentioned as to when the matter will be taken up as an action item.
Consultant William Priest, with Best Best & Krieger LLC, noted first for the public that the City Council adopted its own campaign direct contribution limit to $250 per source, per election.
“The state will not enforce a local campaign contribution limit that is different from the state’s default limit, which is currently at $4,900 per source, per election,” Priest said.
He also said if the city wanted to fine candidates for exceeding the contribution limit, it needed to also set an appeals process.
“The question would then become, does the city have the infrastructure in place to process an appeal if the candidate demands one,” Priest said.
Councilmember Tim Burns suggested the council hire an independent hearing officer—an attorney—from outside of the city to deal with alleged violations of campaign ordinances.
“It could be deferred to the hearing officer and there would be clearly defined due process, and that hearing officer then, as an attorney, could choose whether or not to investigate it,” Burns said.
Priest agreed, and said he would look for referrals of an attorney instigator for the council.
Regarding enforcement and monitoring, Priest said it’s typically done through the political process.
“I did see references in [the city’s] existing policy of removal from appointed committees and commissions censure,” Priest said. “Those are typically the sanctions imposed for violation of a council conduct policy. It’s a political solution as opposed to a strict legal situation.”
Priest said the city clerk has the authority to issue fines, and that in order to have the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) enforce the ordinance, he’s seen small- to medium-sized jurisdictions adopt the state’s campaign contribution limit.
“To enforce it, you’re going to need to get a court order at the end of the day, or possibly some sort of administrative fine process, but that could end up being appealed in court as well,” Priest said, noting that the process can get resource-intensive.
Councilman Rolan Resendiz asked about how the city could limit the influence of independent expenditure committees on local elections.
“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities and other local agencies had the authority to limit direct contributions,” Priest said. “Independent expenditure committees, however, are not the candidate and are not the candidate’s control committee.”
Priest noted that in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that independent expenditure committees are not subject to campaign contributions.
“So while your ordinance could continue to limit direct contributions to $250 per source, per election, your ordinance may not constitutionally impose such a limit on an independent expenditure committee,” Priest said.
Resendiz asked if a candidate communicating with that committee would be an infraction of that law.
Priest clarified that an independent expenditure committee is one that is not coordinating with the candidate.
“Coordination is a term meaning the candidate and the expenditure committee are talking and they’re planning a common strategy,” he said.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez asked if the local ordinance could add a clause stating that “the individual that did receive that amount of money could not vote on an item that could benefit that contributor for the term.”
Priest said that was not an option.
“That only applies to appointed officials—if you have planning commissioners, civil service board members, they may have to recuse themselves from the decision,” he said. “The receipt of campaign contributions does not force recusal. It affects sitting committee members, not candidates.”
Velazquez asked if any cities had an ordinance requiring that candidates list their top 10 contributors. Priest said to his knowledge, only Santa Cruz has such an ordinance.
“I don’t mean to be flip by saying this, but just because one city is doing it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the one size fits all for everyone else,” Priest noted, mentioning he would look into it for Hollister. “Santa Cruz is a charter city; you are a general law city,” Priest reminded the council.
Velazquez asked if contributions could be limited only to those from within the city. Priest said no, because campaign contributions are considered a free speech right.
“For a candidate to get many contributions of $250, both within and without the city, that’s perfectly allowed,” he continued. “Limiting it to just people within the city probably would not pass constitutional muster.”
Councilman Rick Perez questioned the fairness of using personal finances to fund one’s own campaign, asking if the council could set a policy regarding self-funding. Priest said that according to the Supreme Court, “the fact that there are people of more means than others is not a constitutional justification to set those types of limits.”
Regarding the issue of self-funding, Resendiz said he felt politicians who self-fund their campaigns “have a vested interest in what they’re doing.”
“I know that they’ve got somebody sitting up there now who did in fact do that because they really care about it,” he said. “Most people don’t do that and that’s why we’re addressing this because it has been a problem—that people are hand-picked to be up there to represent special interests, and it becomes a conflict of financial interest.”
Morales asked if there could be criminal or civil charges that could be brought forward if rules or election laws were violated. Priest replied that if an outside attorney found violations after investigating the issue, it would be referred to the district attorney or the FPPC.
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