Major changes lowering the bar for what is required of candidates to receive taxpayer matching campaign funds were unanimously approved Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council.
If Mayor Eric Garcetti signs off on the ordinance, candidates will need to raise at least $20,000 in donations to qualify for matching funds, down from $25,000, but not the $11,500 Councilman Mike Bonin had recommended in a proposed amendment in October.
Council President Herb Wesson said he wanted the alterations on the books so that they would apply to a special election in June for the soon-to-be- vacant seat of Councilman Mitchell Englander, who is stepping down at the end of the year to take a job in the private sector.
Wesson said the lowered amount would “ensure that this door has been opened that has been closed for so long,” although he said he wanted the Ethics Commission to vet and make recommendations where it relates to citywide offices and the council elections that could apply beyond the June special election.
The council’s action was criticized by Michele Sutter, director of Money Out Voters In, a coalition of organizations opposed to the influence of big money in politics.
“We were blindsided by Council President Wesson’s `hybrid’ plan, which we fear is no solution,” she said. “Unfortunately this looks to have been about changing the headlines, and not about an earnest attempt to avoid changes to the matching funds program leaving mostly incumbents and those with big money backers able to access it. This is especially likely to disadvantage women, who are disproportionately underrepresented on the City Council.”
Bonin and dozens of organizations called for the required level to be reduced to $11,500 for City Council candidates, arguing that other big cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York City, have thresholds that are far lower than L.A.
“If you don’t pass the Bonin amendment, you might as well call this the incumbency protection act,” Rob Quan with Unrig LA told the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee on Tuesday. “Far too many people view elections about outcomes only without appreciating the actual process, the full exercise of democracy. If you don’t pass the Bonin amendment, you limit our discourse, who gets engaged and who gets heard.”
Another rule change approved by the council eliminates the need for candidates to get signatures in order to quality for matching funds.
Currently, qualified candidates who collect 500 valid signatures — which is also the number required to qualify for the ballot — during the nominating petition process receive a match rate of 1:1 in the primary and the general election, and qualified candidates who collect 1,000 valid signatures receive a match rate of 2:1 in the primary and 4:1 in the general.
The new rules let all qualified candidates receive a match rate of 6:1 in the primary and the general, and the total amount candidates can receive in matching funds would also increase. For City Council candidates, the amount would increase from $100,000 in the primary and $125,000 in the general election to $151,000 in the primary or $189,000 in the general.
The changes also reduce how much of each eligible donation the city would match, going from $250 for City Council races to one- seventh of the maximum contribution allowed. For the City Council, the maximum contribution allowed is $800, making the eligible amount for matching funds around $115.
The City Council recently approved other changes to the matching funds rules, including reducing the number of required donations from 200 to 100 and requiring participation in a town hall or debate where candidates take questions from the public. Before the October vote, candidates only had to agree to debate their opponents, but participating in a debate or town hall with questions posed by the public was not required.
In other action Wednesday, the City Council approved an ordinance setting the special election to fill Englander’s seat in Council District 12 for June 4, pending approval by Garcetti.
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