Del Mar tackles campaign finance, ethics reforms

Elections in Del Mar are on their way to becoming a little more forthright and a lot more financially transparent.

The Del Mar City Council this week settled on a set of campaign reforms — the city’s first in nearly 20 years — that raise the limit on contributions while requiring blunter financial disclosures and a pledge from every candidate to adhere to more stringent ethical guidelines.

The effort is being driven by unsavory practices that arose during Del Mar’s 2016 campaign season, as well as a state law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The California Disclose Act takes aim at so-called “dark money” by requiring political advertisements to clearly name the individuals and entities funding the ad rather than listing misleadingly nebulous committees in minuscule fonts. The new law applies to every manner of political advertisement, from billboards to door hangers to bumper stickers.

Building off an elections workshop earlier this month, the council on Feb. 20 weighed a resolution proposed by a special analysis by Del Mar’s legal counsel. Because the council made several substantive adjustments, the resolution must come back to the council anew to begin codification.

Several of the key reforms are financial. The maximum personal donation will climb to $200 (up from $100) and contributions of $75 or more will require disclosure (up from $25). Political parties will be barred from contributing more than $2,000 to a candidate. And instead of connecting the thresholds to the Consumer Price Index—as suggested by the analysis—city staff will review the thresholds every four years and recommend changes when necessary.

Under the $100-per-person limit, Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said she didn’t have enough to cover the $14,000 her 2016 campaign cost. Raising the maximum donation to $200, she said, should encourage candidates who lack the means to bankroll their campaign.

“The idea of city government is that we want the common man to apply for this job and to come and speak to their part of the community that they know,” Parks said. “Many people don’t have deep pockets.”

Parks and Councilwoman Ellie Haviland had helped craft a recommendation that would have set the disclosure threshold at $100 and the maximum donation from a political party at $4,000. But at the Feb. 20 discussion, Councilman Dave Druker successfully talked the council into lowering both amounts, pointing out that the per-person donations were capped at $50 when he won a seat in the council’s 1996 election.

“It is possible to run a campaign at a $100-a-person contribution. I’ve done it four times now, and every time I actually had money left over,” he said. “By having small limits, we are saying we are different than everybody else. It just means that we need to, as candidates, go out and get more people to support our candidacy … and also create a campaign that is cost-effective.”

Del Mar has never had a political party contribute to a city council campaign, but the 2016 election saw candidates with political affiliations. Meanwhile, political operatives in San Diego are increasingly keen to fund city-level candidates as preparation for running for state or federal office, said Wayne Dernetz, a former city attorney for Vista and former city manager for Del Mar.

“I expect it will happen at some point in the future, and if it does I think we should be prepared in advance,” he said.

The council also signed off on a “fair campaign practices” policy for candidates and their closest campaign associates. At the outset of their campaign, candidates will be asked to sign a pledge disavowing the use of straw men and anonymous surrogates, take responsibility for fact-checking their own assertions and to not knowingly spread exaggerations or misinformation. In the event that errors comes to light, the offending candidate will publicly announce their error.

The policy also seeks to curtail inflammatory claims in the final two days of the election. While a candidate will be able to distribute materials in direct response to comments from a rival or the public, candidates will not be allowed to create new communications out of whole cloth. The idea is to discourage 11th-hour “hit pieces” along the lines of the anonymous flier that was emailed to voters in Del Mar in the waning moments of the 2016 election.

Troubled by the less-than-ideal behaviors seen in that campaign, Councilman Terry Sinnott called for more emphasis on raising the policy’s profile and urged that the policy also apply to campaign managers and treasurers.

“When we came out of 2016 election, there was some feeling that we could have done a better job,” he said. “In the heat of political contest, there are opportunities for people to just kind of forget it and want to do some things that hopefully they would reconsider with this.”

Signing the pledge will be voluntary, but the signatures will be posted to the city’s website and made available to any member of the public upon request. The policy, however, offers no punishment for violating the pledge.

“I think it’s part of the Del Mar way … that we set aspirational goals and we expect people to comply, we give them stink-eye if they don’t, and hopefully we can foster behavior in the right direction in that way,” said Mayor Dwight Worden. “… We’re going to out you and shame you if you don’t.”

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