Elections Commission Considers Rule Changes Regarding Campaign Money

San Jose’s Elections Commission received complaints last year about political candidates exchanging coffee for signatures on a nomination petition, raising money after the election to pay off campaign debt and mingling primary and general election funds.

In response to some of these complaints, the city wants to update its campaign and ethics provisions—called Title 12—to make them more clear in some spots, more up to date in others and just more foolproof overall. To get more input on what should be done, the public is invited to attend a March 28 commission meeting to weigh in on the proposed changes. Residents are also encouraged to take part in an online survey if they can’t attend the meeting.

The Title 12 amendments up for consideration include:

• Update the code to explicitly state that bribing people for nomination signatures is not OK. Even if the bribe in question is a pastry and cup of coffee—still, just no. The current rules say you can’t compensate people for signatures for petition forms, but they don’t specify nomination forms. Updating that would specify that the rules ban bribery for all signature drives.

• Nomination forms require 50 signatures to qualify a candidate. But often a candidate gathers more and has to ask for a supplemental form. The commission will consider updating the form to include 75 signatures.

• Candidates aren’t allowed to raise money after Election Day, or even use their personal savings to pay down last-minute debt racked up during the campaign. This restriction left some candidates in a bind last year—it was illegal to raise money to pay off last-minute campaign expenditures and just as illegal to fork out their own cash to balance the books. Some of them deposited their own cash anyway, the commission says, so they may as well update the rules to allow that. Another suggested revision would let candidates raise money through the end of the election month, but only enough to pay off the debt.

• It seems a bunch of people are confused over the rules on political signs. The commission wants to update the code to include specifics about sign sizing, placement and appearance.

• Every sign, flier or the like promoting a candidate has to, by local law, include a disclosure of who paid for it. You’ve seen it before: The part of the sign or brochure that says “paid for by …” Current rules require the font size to be a quarter of the size of the largest font. But that’s a little awkward in terms of layout, the commission says. If the lettering spelling out a candidate’s name is 8 inches tall, that makes for a pretty large disclosure font. The commission suggests updating the provision to instead dictate a specific font size instead of the relative measurements now in place.

• Councilman Kansen Chu pointed out a Title 12 passage that may be unconstitutional. Rules about filing disclosure statements for campaign signs, buttons and clothing might violate First Amendment rights, he says. The commission will consider removing those disclosure requirements entirely.

• Commissioners often get complaints for alleged violations outside their oversight. They’re looking into revising complaint forms to make it crystal clear what violations the commission actually addresses.

• Disclosure forms, or Form 460s to be specific, require candidates to report all money raised and spent on the campaign leading up to primary and general elections. But some candidates mixed money raised for the primaries with general election accounts. The commission will consider adopting a supplemental disclosure to itemize expenses and contributions made between the primaries and the end of the mid-year reporting period.

• The city’s retirement board members don’t have to file disclosures about out-of-state investments. Election commissioners want to change that, either to get retirement boards to list those investments on a Form 700, which itemizes a person’s property and other wealth, or on a new ad hoc form.

• Here’s one related to the big Citizens United Supreme Court case, which ruled that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as people. It’s being appealed right now. In the meantime, the commission may lift voluntary expenditure limits for candidates since no such cap applies to independent expenditure committees.

“This gives outside interests and committees more power in an election than the candidates,” reads the amendment brief item filed by Mayor Chuck Reed.

• When someone files a complaint over ethics or election violations, commissioners can’t publicly talk about it. But in some cases, the story gets leaked to the press or commissioners have to discuss whether to issue a subpoena to pursue an investigation. They suggest revising the code to allow for limited discussion of active complaints in those cases.

• The City Clerk doesn’t have a deadline or a fine in place for candidates late in responding to requested changes to campaign statements. Commissioners propose imposing a deadline and a $10 daily late fee to keep everyone in line. Candidates can and still will be able to make their own changes to statements at any time.

• When an election’s too close to call, a candidate can pay the county Registrar of Voters to check for irregularities and a possible recount. An amendment proposed by Councilman Don Rocha would make a recount automatic in super close elections.

• It used to be that the city published updates to campaign finance reports in the San Jose Mercury News at least five days before a City Council or mayoral election. Now that info’s posted online. The City Clerk’s Office asked if they could just forgo the print notice since most people can view the filings electronically anyway.

• The city requires ethics training only for board members and commissioners who get paid in some way. Election officials want to extend that qualification to everyone in appointed or elected office, even if their service is pro bono.

• If an investigation requires more respondents than originally filed, the city asks for a new complaint to be filed. Commissioners want to streamline the process by creating a way to simply update a complaint by adding respondents instead of filing an entirely new one.

• San Jose, being a place of many languages, needs to improve its outreach to communicate rules about campaign finance, so more people understand them—especially as they relate to independent expenditures, commissioners say.

• Since the state adopted rules allowing candidates to file campaign disclosures electronically, the city should update its own to follow suit, commissioners say.

• The city’s ordinance about gifts to candidates is confusing to a lot of folks, commissioners find. They suggest re-writing the ordinance, without really changing the actual rules, to make the language simpler to understand. Or, San Jose could forgo its own code and adopt the state’s verbatim for simplicity.

WHAT: Elections Commission special meeting
WHEN: 5:30pm March 28
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: Acting City Clerk Toni Taber, 408.535.1270

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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