Concerned by the cascade of outside cash that benefited some Santa Rosa City Council candidates and fueled record spending in the race this year, several council members say they plan to explore ways to level the playing field in future elections.
Though court rulings prevent them from limiting the amount of money individuals and groups can spend to support candidates independent of campaigns, council members say they’re eager to see what options they have to blunt the impact of outside money in local elections.
Switching to district elections, increasing campaign spending limits, and including independent expenditures in voluntary campaign spending limits are all being floated as possible responses to the unprecedented spending — more than a quarter million dollars — by outside groups and individuals.
“There is no easy answer to it,” said Chris Rogers, who won a seat on the council without the benefit of outside money. “All I know is the average person in the city is not the person who is putting $200,000 into the City Council race.”
He was referring to the $195,000 that campaign filings indicate was spent by Scott Flater, the son-in-law of prominent local developer and banker Bill Gallaher, who has a history of bundling political contributions from family and colleagues.
Flater, a 40-year-old father of four children who listed himself as “homemaker” in filings, is now the subject of a complaint to the state Fair Political Practices Commission alleging he’s not the real source of the money. It was spent to support Ernesto Olivares and Jack Tibbetts, who won, and Don Taylor, who did not.
A second independent expenditure committee, Citizens for Economic and Affordable Housing Solutions, raised $80,500 in support of Taylor. Combined, the two independent campaigns raised $276,000 — $26,000 more than all six candidates combined.
That’s concerning to several council members, who say they’ve got some ideas for how to make it harder for big money to have an outsized influence in Santa Rosa. They include:
District elections: Council members are elected in a citywide vote, but carving up Santa Rosa into seven electoral districts is viewed by some as having many advantages, potentially blunting the impact of big money. Smaller districts are easier for candidates to canvass, lowering the cost of campaigns and, in theory, making it less likely that a candidate propped up by big outside donors will gain traction. Voters rejected district elections in 2012.
Campaign limits: Julie Combs, who pushed for tighter campaign disclosures on robocalls after she was elected in 2012, said the city might want to follow the county’s lead and increase its $500 per person campaign spending limit when independent expenditure groups enter a race. Contributions to supervisorial races are capped at $2,894 per cycle, but double to $5,788 when such campaigns get involved. Doing the same in Santa Rosa would give candidates more ammunition to respond outside groups, especially when they are negative, she said.
Requirements to run: To be eligible to run for council, a candidate needs to be nominated by 20 registered Santa Rosa voters, a fairly simple process that involves gathering 20 signatures. But Tibbetts said increasing that number, perhaps to 200, would force candidates to work harder for the right to run. “I think it would help us identify candidates who are really eager to serve,” he said.