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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.

Including independent cash in spending limits: Currently, candidates who agree to spend less than $51,879 in their campaigns qualify for public campaign financing. They get to put a statement and photo on the city’s website and are included in a “Voter Update” mailed to every household in the city, at a cost of about $24,000. Candidates who don’t agree to the limits, like Combs and Tibbetts, are not included, which can be a source of confusion for voters. Candidates like Olivares and Taylor agreed to stay under the limit and benefited from the taxpayer funded publicity, but then also benefited from independent expenditures that pushed the total spent getting them elected well past the campaign limit.

Increasing filing fines: When Flater’s campaign failed to file campaign disclosures in a timely manner, the campaign was fined just $10 per day, or $150. Those fines are set by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, but Combs called them “ridiculously low” and wants the city to consider imposing higher local fines.

Not all council members are interested in addressing the impact on independent expenditures in local elections. Olivares has said he doesn’t see the money as a problem, and Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said he doesn’t think it’s the council’s place to second-guess activity deemed free speech by court rulings, including by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case.

“For me, the courts have spoken, and that’s not our role to tell the courts how to interpret the law,” said Schwedhelm, Santa Rosa’s former police chief.

Councilman Chris Coursey said “we should all be disturbed” when that amount of money is spent by outside groups trying to influence a race. But he said it was noteworthy that the candidate who received the most outside money, Taylor, didn’t get elected.

He contrasted that with Rogers, who had far less money behind him but “worked his butt off.”

“I think that if people want to represent the citizens of this city they ought to be willing to work,” Coursey said. “And you can still get elected by working hard.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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