The item seeks to put three separate aspects of election law into a single section of the election code.
These ordinances will remove all political campaign sign regulations from Chapters 3 and 40 of the Municipal Code and include them in Chapter 12 (Elections). This will put all regulations related to elections in one chapter making it convenient for the public to look an election related question up. They will also increase the allowable campaign contribution per person to $250 from the current $100 and impose a $25 removal fee for signs placed on public property.
The guise of this move is stated as “convenience.” But it also has the advantage of enabling the item to be slipped through in relative obscurity, buried at the end where few are looking for it.
The first part of the item is a public hearing on an ordinance which would allow renters to display political campaign signs. This is an item that we discussed in October that came before the UC Davis-City of Davis Student Liaison Commission.
It has full backing of ASUCD (Associated Students of UC Davis). The issue came to the commission’s attention after the ASUCD Senate passed a resolution in September, authored by Sen. Michael Lay, calling for an ordinance ensuring the right of Davis renters to post political signs. Several renters had complained to City and ASUCD officials that landlords were not allowing them to put up signs in support of certain candidates for public office.
ASUCD Sen. Andrew Peake:
“The right to free speech is a right guaranteed to everyone, not just to those who own property. When it comes to political participation, it shouldn’t matter whether you own your home or not. When certain members of the community aren’t allowed to participate in the democratic process in this way, it’s a form of disenfranchisement.”
City staff circulated a legal memorandum stating that landlords who prohibited their tenants from posting political signs were most likely out of step with the law.
Staff has now however taken the rather unusual step of putting together two relatively distinct ordinances into the same item. Therefore, having read the first part of the item, one might not notice that there is a second very distinct ordinance carried within it.
Adding to the confusion, is the fact that the second portion of the item has received little discussion leading up to its placement on the agenda. To the point where one wonders where it came from and under whose direction it was placed there.
Even in the agenda packet, the ordinance is buried and extremely brief. Unlike the political sign ordinance, the ordinance to change campaign finance laws has no background or discussion. It was a very simple single paragraph description.
It simply reads:
Campaign Contribution Limits
The current campaign contribution limit of $100 was set by ordinance 1624 on November 20, 1991. With the increase in costs to run a simple campaign over the past sixteen years, it is being recommended that consideration be given to increasing the individual limit from the current $100 to $250.
The merits of the increase aside, the fact that this was done in such a quiet manner, is of grave concern. Councilmember Lamar Heystek expressed similar concerns to me. This was the first he had heard of any proposed changes and he was unclear as to how the issue came about.
As Liaison the UC Davis-City of Davis Student Liaison Commission, he was very familiar with the political sign ordinance. The issue of renters having the same rights to place political signs around their rental units is an issue at the very basic levels of free speech.
However, the issue of campaign finance laws is a separate matter and needed to be brought up separately.
One can make arguments on both sides of the issue of increasing the amount an individual can donate in a city council race. However, that is not the point here. The point here is about open government, transparency, and having a full public discussion of this item. The item did not make the Davis Enterprise. It did not have any sort of prior discussion in a commission, and apparently even members of the council had no idea it was even being considered.
That is very alarming to me, again regardless of whether you think this is a good idea or a bad idea. What does seem clear is that three of the members of council are running for reelection. It takes thirty days for an ordinance to take effect after it’s second reading which would be the first council meeting in January, meaning that by early February, candidates facing reelection can suddenly experience a 250% increase in their available campaign funds. And let me go out on a limb and suggest that this idea did not come from the Mayor. That leaves two likely culprits who would personally benefit from changing this ordinance.
To make things even more interesting is the fact that the Mayor Pro Tem, Ruth Asmundson, will not be at the meeting on Tuesday as she is out of town. That will leave open the strong possibility that this will not pass and perhaps it will leave open the possibility that this would be delayed until January or even after the current election.
Regardless of one’s feelings on the current law or the proposed changes, the public must be heard on this issue and weigh in. Attempting to close off public input, scrutiny or debate, is a very dangerous precedent in my view. Let us have this debate with full notice in January and if the public wants to see these changes, then at least there will have been a chance for people to weigh in. My guess however is that is exactly what the timing and secretive nature of this ordinance attempted to avoid.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting