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As dozens of Sonoma County political candidates continue fundraising to pay for election signs, bumper stickers and get-out-the-vote efforts, one former candidate must decide what to do with her campaign funds.

Pam Torliatt, former Petaluma councilwoman and mayor who has been out of political office since 2010, launched a bid in late 2012 to return to politics by running for Petaluma City Council. There are three open seats on the November ballot.

But in June, she announced she was withdrawing from the race because of time constraints.

Before the announcement, she had hosted several fundraisers and collected about $6,000 in contributions.

What can election candidates do with money they’ve collected from political supporters? Election laws are complicated, but there are guidelines, according to the state Fair Political Practices Commission and Petaluma’s local campaign ordinances.

Torliatt didn’t respond to questions about what she has planned for her funds.

But there are restrictions on what she can do with it, said Petaluma City Clerk Claire Cooper, who serves as the city’s elections officer.

State election laws are fairly confining, said Brian Sobel, a former Petaluma city councilman and now a political consultant. But there is wiggle room.

“She could do research of whether Pam Torliatt could run for office again, which is a legitimate use,” he said. “In the furtherance of her political ambitions, she can do some things.”

Funds collected during a campaign can be used to pay off campaign debts and expenses for the election, such as office supplies and printing costs.

They can also be refunded to contributors or donated “to a bona fide charitable, educational, civic, religious, or similar tax-exempt, nonprofit organization,” FPPC rules state.

Money can be used for a future campaign, but only before they become “surplus” in the eyes of the law.

Campaign funds held by a nonincumbent who is defeated or by a candidate who withdraws from an election become surplus at the end of the semi-annual reporting period following the election, according to the FPPC.

For the Petaluma City Council’s November election, that is Dec. 31, Cooper said.

Surplus funds for a candidate who drops out may not be used for a future election, FPPC rules state.

Incumbent candidates who run for other offices may transfer campaign contributions over to new campaigns.

When Sonoma County 4th District Supervisor Mike McGuire kicked off his re-election campaign last year, he had already raised $160,000. He will be able to transfer that to his state Senate campaign under state rules.

In 2010, Torliatt transferred $19,000 from her Petaluma mayoral committee to campaign for the 2nd District Board of Supervisors election. County election rules required an itemization of which individual donors had contributed the transferred money.

Through the most recent campaign finance reporting period, which ended June 30, Torliatt had raised no money from January to June, but had $6,100 in carryover from previous fundraising efforts. After spending about $500, she reported having $5,600 in her campaign account as of June 30.

She could give some of that to other political candidates she supports, within amounts allowed by individual jurisdictions. She’s already given the maximum allowed under Petaluma campaign finance laws to Petaluma Mayor David Glass and Councilwoman Teresa Barrett, with whom her politics align.

Contributions can be made to a political party or committee, so long as the funds are not used in support of or opposition to a candidate, state rules said. The funds must be used for the party’s or committee’s overhead expenses.

Contributions can be made to support or oppose any candidate for federal office, any candidate for elective office in a state other than California, or for any ballot measure, the rules state.

But they couldn’t be used to form an independent expenditure committee to support or oppose a candidate or a ballot measure, said Cooper, Petaluma’s elections official.

In Petaluma this fall, a sales-tax increase will be on the ballot.

Political consultant Sobel said the money Torliatt has left isn’t likely to affect the local races.

“If she were able to move it somewhere else, I don’t think it would make much difference in the election,” he said. “Six thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket these days. You could barely fund a survey with that.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.