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Is Palo Alto ready for campaign finance reform?

Original post made on May 19, 2022

Everyone agrees that there's too much money in Palo Alto politics, even those who benefit the most from this trend. As advocates push to limit campaign spending, they face resistance from city leaders.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, May 19, 2022, 9:33 AM

Comments (34)

Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on May 19, 2022 at 11:26 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

PA Online provides a great service with this explanation of campaign contribution limits.

It seems to me that local, state and federal court rulings generally open gates of cash flow to candidates and special interest groups. Well-intentioned reforms are proposed and sometimes adopted; however, for every door closed another opens.

Equally important are recent court rulings which, in general, are less restrictive. This article will not be easy for PA Online to write and it will set better context.

Nevertheless, it is important for everyone to better appreciate which campaign restrictions are possible and which are impossible. Late in November, we all need to review the disclosed campaign contributions and those which were not disclosed. Unfortunately, there is more than a trickle of "late disclosures" and loan paybacks worthy of attention later in 2023.

Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 19, 2022 at 11:39 am

Mama is a registered user.

Individual citizens should be able to contribute. Large corporations, developers, and other special interests should not be allowed to donate.

Posted by Alice Smith
a resident of Downtown North
on May 19, 2022 at 12:55 pm

Alice Smith is a registered user.

None of those council members who opined that they were receiving large amount donations turned them down or set lower personal limits. Are our city council members being influenced by these huge contributions? Let's support the LWV's campaign limitation. $500 per person.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2022 at 1:49 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

I had no problem running for City Council while maintaining a voluntary cap of $500 and not accepting any PAC money. I spent only approximately $10,000 (mostly for my website and email software) and received 8000 votes. I believe that was the biggest money-to-vote ratio of all candidates. I also sent no mailings, in respect of our natural environment.

In fact, the biggest challenge for me when I voluntarily chose not to hold any pay-to-attend fundraisers and when I chose not to reach out to my network of wealthy friends, instead choosing to meet as many individual community members as possible, is that the local press viewed my small-money donations (which were almost ALL of my donations) as demonstrative of "lack of support."

The press plays a hugely important role in enabling campaign finance reform. As long as the local press continues to rate candidates by dollar signs rather than by commitment, capability, and community support, it will be harder for candidates to prioritize speaking with community members over speaking with big money donors, which currently happens for most candidates.

But as I said at the city council meeting, if I choose to run again (something I have not decided), then I again will voluntarily follow the $500 cap on contributions, and always prioritize speaking with community members who have least access to our elected and appointed leaders, over the moneyed interests that already have too much influence on City Hall. I hope that others would choose this as well.

Democracy is a something we do, not something that happens to us. But Democracy is much easier when the Press does its part and evaluates candidates on FAR more measures than how much money the candidate has raised. Perhaps, even, the Press could acknowledge, the amount of money raised -- often correlating with corruption rather than community support -- can be a disqualifier rather than qualifier. Just a thought.

So obviously I support the $500 limit and just like last time, would abide by it whether it's required or not.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2022 at 1:55 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

[ math correction: I meant vote-to-money ratio, rather than money-to-vote ratio above. ]

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 19, 2022 at 3:27 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Limiting individual contributions makes no sense unless you limit contributions from lobbyists, companies, non-profits, etc. since they're the ones who are contributing the most money, usually to pro-development candidates.

It's the utmost hypocrisy for the League of Women Voters and Ms. Cormack to jump on the campaign "reform" bandwagon after A) Ms. Kniss's campaign finance regulations and B) taking all that money from office developers which is one reason we have such ridiculous new housing density targets.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2022 at 3:43 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

To clarify, I am close to certain that the LWV limits ALL campaign contributions - whether from individuals or PACs or organizations or companies or nonprofits -- to $500. In other words, $500 from any source, no matter the source. Otherwise, I agree, it makes no sense.

To the extent that others have been incorrectly describing the LWVPA initiative, I fear that they are likely not paying attention (or else, perhaps less likely?) intentionally misstating the truth.

Here is the LWVPA page explaining their initiatives:

Web Link

And background research supporting their initiatives is here:

Web Link

I support all of their initiatives 100% and I voluntarily followed them in 2020. Should I run again, I would voluntarily follow them again.

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Community Center
on May 19, 2022 at 3:47 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

The League of Women voters is led by Liz Kniss who has long been very supportive of developers and big business. In fact, in her last election where she served on city council, she said she would not take developer contributions and then after the election it was revealed she had but not reported them till after the election.

This proposal by the LWV under Liz Kniss is designed to stop residents from countering large donations by developers and corporations. Greg Scharf also self funded $50K or $100K as a real estate lawyer when he campaigned. Many of us see the proposal by the LWB for what it is, an attempt to shift power back towards developers.

I do think disclosures about who and where the money is coming from would be helpful. The reality is most reform can be worked around so it would just result in more money flowing into PACs.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on May 19, 2022 at 4:13 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Liz Kniss self financed her last campaign with a personal loan of $25K.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on May 19, 2022 at 5:39 pm

mjh is a registered user.

However well intentioned, this is the wrong way round. Until outside money spent by PACs is also restricted, limiting individual campaign contributions is, in practice, a cynical attempt to hobble candidates who serve the interests of individuals and communities rather than corporations and other deep pocket entities who can still spend with no individual dollar limit. Worse, whose advertising and mailers on behalf of their favored candidates can legally obscure whose interests they actually represent.

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Community Center
on May 19, 2022 at 6:43 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

Liz Kniss violated campaign finance laws, a 4-year-long investigation concludes

Web Link

"Kniss violated two laws: one that prohibits candidates from using their personal bank accounts for campaign expenditures and another that requires them to report the employers and occupations of donors who contribute more than $100."

"her failure to disclose 31 contributions, totaling $19,340, that she had received from developers in the weeks before the November 2016 election but did not list in her filings until Jan. 11."

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on May 19, 2022 at 7:59 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Ironic an organization in which former council member Liz Knizz plays a prominent and influential role is touting “campaign finance reform” that would result in giving the advantage to PACs etc. that have hidden sources of unlimited donations.

Posted by ArtL
a resident of Barron Park
on May 19, 2022 at 8:14 pm

ArtL is a registered user.

An in depth analysis several years ago of the funding of Palo Alto City Council elections (Campaign Funding in Silicon Valley: Spotlight on Palo Alto| March 31, 2020) Web Link showed that most Palo Alto candidates receive significant financial support from wealthy donors and corporations:

"Just 25 contributors were responsible for one in three dollars raised by candidates in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections. While money was not determinative of all election outcomes or political actions, it certainly indicates salient patterns of political influence in the city."

The last phrase in the last sentence is surely behind the largesse of many of the large dollar donors to Palo Alto elections. I support the LWV proposal. We ought not, as the proverb says: "Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good."

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on May 19, 2022 at 9:49 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

If you want to analyze the data for donors in the 2020 City Council campaign, it can be found in the Appendix of my 2020-09-29 blog "Examining Candidates Donations: Palo Alto City Council"
Web Link

That appendix contains links to multiple overlapping datasets, with one being an Excel workbook with multiple worksheets. Actually, there are earlier versions representing stages in my cleaning up of the data.

Did I do a similar analysis later in the campaign? No. The next round of reports would cover through October 17 and be published on October 22, 11 days before Election Day. With early voting and vote-by-mail, a great many of the voters would have already cast their ballots -- that analysis would have been irrelevant to them. With campaigns needing to be up-to-speed by the beginning of October, candidates need to have most of their fund-raising completed.

Posted by Kathy Miller
a resident of Community Center
on May 19, 2022 at 10:11 pm

Kathy Miller is a registered user.

I'm so glad to read this thorough story by Gennady Sheyner. It's terrific that all of the Council members answered this journalists' questions about where they stand on local campaign finance reform. And it's wonderful to see that there is so much agreement that the influence on money in politics is problematic.

I also note that a majority of Council members express concern about independent expenditures. This is a concern that the League shares. And while the Supreme Court has made it clear that, under the First Amendment, PACs can spend as much as they want on political campaigns, they've also made it clear that it's okay to require that ads paid for by a PAC must disclose the PAC's biggest donors. In Palo as things now stand, PAC donors must be disclosed only if they donate more than $50,000 to the PAC — California's threshold for state and local races in California. But local jurisdictions can set a lower threshold, as Mountain View has done. By lowering the threshold to require disclosure of a PAC's top donors of $2500 or more, the City Council could signal its understanding that voters have a right to know who is spending money to influence our elections. The Council could, and should pass an ordinance to this effect now.

The League also proposed a voluntary expenditure limit of $30,000 -- the same as neighboring Mountain View. Based on this story, at least three Council members (Burt, Stone and Dubois) appear supportive of setting a voluntary expenditure limit. But Dubois's proposal of an $85,000 limit is much too high. Expenditure limits should bear some relationship to how much a candidate needs to spend to reach the population of people who will vote for that office. Dubois points to Hayward's limit of $79K in support of his proposal, but Hayward's City Council represents more than 158,000 residents compared with Palo Alto's 68,000.

If money in politics is problematic, as the Council seems to agree, let's see them do something about it.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 20, 2022 at 2:43 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

ArtL - Can you please re-post that URL? It didn't work for me (maybe it's my user error?)

Kathy - thank you so much for the explanation. I do think it's important to note that although the states are not allowed to limit corporate/PAC donations (truly insane, as others note), candidates can agree voluntarily not to take money from PACs, SuperPACs, and corporations. Elizabeth Warren and her opponent Scott Brown famously made that agreement in Warren's successful Senate race in 2012.

Thinking of true solutions, as noted by the highly-respected Brennan Center -
Web Link
Many consider publicly-funded elections to be the straightest way to avoid corruption and outsized influence by the wealthiest few. As the article I posted explained, a system that matches small-dollar donations by individuals (perhaps even only individuals residing in the jurisdiction) with public money contributions would double the impact of small local donors. Already, as of 2018, 14 states and 24 local governments have instituted some version of public financing. This opens the door for candidates up and down the income range to run, resulting in greater potential for a representative local government. If anywhere could benefit from such a program, Palo Alto can.

With a representative electorate that is more independent of the 20 wealthy people and entities that have greatest influence on our elected officials, then we could trust our local government to make decisions in the community's best interest, not in the best interest of its wealthiest stakeholders (e.g. Castilleja).

That our City Council thinks that it should cost $80,000 to attempt to obtain a position that pays $12,000/year is horrifying. Personally, I think that the expenditures should not exceed $12,000 (I spent even less). If we seek an equal playing field, we have to be willing to make changes that benefit the public and not the politicians.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 20, 2022 at 6:53 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"I do think it's important to note that although the states are not allowed to limit corporate/PAC donations (truly insane, as others note),..."

Which is exactly why this proposal from Liz Kniss et al is so cynically opportunistic; she obviously resents that more residentialist candidates have undercut the developers whom she and her acolytes so ardently support(ed) in their quest to turn PA into an office park.

Posted by Kathy Miller
a resident of Community Center
on May 20, 2022 at 9:08 am

Kathy Miller is a registered user.

The League of Women Voters is a good government organization. The proposals made are not a cynical attempt to support candidates on either side of the local residentialist/pro-growth divide. They are meant to reduce money in politics and would have the same effect on all candidates regardless of their political views.

If every candidate agreed to a voluntary expenditure limit, and large donors were limited to $500, every candidate would have enough money to make the case for their election (it works in neighboring Mountain View!). As Greer Stone points out, $41,000 was enough for him to win.

We all know money in politics is a problem. Let's act on campaign finance reform.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 20, 2022 at 9:20 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Yes, the League of Womens Voters used to be a good government organization. I wonder if the same can be said for its local chapter and its newish local president who unashamedly pushed over-development while famously denying Palo Alto has/had traffic problems and for which we're now paying the price with local density targets.

Why her rush to limit contributions NOW while letting increased spending by lobbyists, companies, non-profits continue to soar?? We've seen what "Corporations are people, my friends" thinking re Citizens United has done to the national election landscape.

Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on May 20, 2022 at 10:48 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.


Kindly confirm, clarify, and/or correct the following in relation to Political Action Committees (PACs) and the research of the Local Campaign Finance Reform Task Force of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto:

1. As per U.S. Supreme Court decision (Citizens United, 2010), there is no limit on how much money can be contributed to PACs or other outside groups.

2. There is also no limit on how much such groups can spend on mailers or other communications for an election as long as such communications are not coordinated with the specific candidate or campaign committee. Hence the term "Independent Expenditure."

3. If, however, those communications are made in coordination with a campaign, they are considered to be a campaign contribution, and, therefore, in California, must be reported as such by the candidate in filings to California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

4. California state law limits the maximum contribution from any single source, including PACs, to a city council candidate in an election cycle to a maximum of $4,900.

5. Municipalities can set their own lower maximum single-source contribution level, and the LWV Task Force is advocating that the limit here be $500.

Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2022 at 12:19 am

Nayeli is a registered user.

I've always found it funny that those who criticize Citizens United the loudest are the same ones who applaud partisan media broadcasts or other media outlets (like newspapers, websites and magazines) that actively endorse candidates.

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2022 at 2:03 pm

felix is a registered user.

This LWV proposal is simply unworkable, allowing too much money to continue to flow into the pockets of too many candidates, while knee-capping others.

Neither PACs nor Independent Expenditure Committees (IEs) need consent of any candidate to donate tens of thousands of dollars to a City Council campaign. It's against the law for candidates to have any contact, control or coordination with either. A candidate can't refuse the money. It doesn't matter what a candidate wants.

And then there is Councilmember Cormack who hypocritically supports the LWV proposal, yet advises like-minded candidates to run as a "team" (slate), sharing mailer expenses (and ad expanses?) which cuts off independent candidates at the knees who must pay all costs by themselves. Hardly a way to level the playing field and make it easier for candidates to run. Cormackian slight-of-hand at its worst.

That PAC's, IEs, slates and self-financing campaigns ($60,000 came out of the pocket of one City Council candidate) are all reasons this LWV proposal fails - it doesn't make for fairer elections or help all candidates.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on May 21, 2022 at 2:45 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

I'm often disappointed in bias written into articles here. For example:
"One side has typically drawn contributions from builders and developers. The other has benefitted from giant contributions from five local families..."

Elsewhere in the article, we learn that the [non-"giant"] contributions from "builders and developers" range as high as $10,000, while the "giant contributions" from local families range only as high as $5,000.

I guess that's a reason why people want to publish news -- so they can put their spin on it.

I was also disappointed to read Tanaka's comments against disclosure of local vs. out-of-town donations:
"Tanaka, ... suggested that local residents aren't the only stakeholders in the city's election process and that it's perfectly reasonable to consider other voices. Some local employees, for example, may be spending "most of their waking moments in Palo Alto" even if they don't reside in the city."

If people who don't live in Palo Alto want to sway our elections, it's only fair that we then be allowed to sway the elections in their communities. Living in a community means you have skin in the game.

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2022 at 3:19 pm

felix is a registered user.

Cormack opines in the article -
"All my colleagues who have taken much larger donations [than her] have spoken to fewer people and haven't had as much connection with the community," Cormack said. "They've really gotten a narrow view."

What utter made-up nonsense. You have no way of knowing this.

Do you hear yourself, Councilmember Cormack? You should be embarrassed by this statement. If you are not, then we should all be concerned by your lack of judgment. Perhaps you should think about resigning from Council now rather than waiting until years end. This may be best for our City.

Posted by Kathy Miller
a resident of Community Center
on May 21, 2022 at 5:00 pm

Kathy Miller is a registered user.

In response to Fred Balin's 5 questions -- yes, that is accurate.

But let me add this:

PACs, businesses, and other organizations in Palo Alto don't always opt to publish their own ads. Instead, they often donate directly to campaigns, and if the City passes a $500 cap on donations to campaigns from a single source, that cap would apply to those donations. The purpose of having such caps is to address the potential for undue influence over a candidate, and it would have that effect on any organization that prefers to give to a candidate's campaign rather than publish their own ads (uncoordinated with the candidate).

It's true that PACs can (under Citizens United) make unlimited independent expenditures (buy ads etc.) in support of a candidate (or candidates) as long as they don't coordinate with the candidate (or candidates). Typically, the organizations that do this have their own donors. The League would like to see increased disclosure of who those donors are. Currently, disclosure is only required for donors who give more than $50,000 to a PAC (the default amount under state law). This is another area where City Councils can lower the threshold. We propose $2500.

We acknowledge that there is no perfect solution to the problem of money in politics. But there are things that can be done by our City Council that would be an improvement over inaction. We hope the community will join us in urging that something be done rather than nothing.

Posted by Bruce Hodge
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 21, 2022 at 5:16 pm

Bruce Hodge is a registered user.

Once again, the most hyperbolic and unhelpful comments - some of which are slanderous in my view - are posted by readers who do not have the courage to publish their name.

I urge Palo Alto Online to change their policy of allowing comments from unnamed individuals. This would improve the civility and discourse of these forums and enable them to be “a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion”. Contact Palo Alto Online if you agree with my sentiment.

And thanks to Kathy Miller for a series of informative and thoughtful posts on this important topic.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 21, 2022 at 8:11 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Bruce Hodge, any woman who's been online long enough knows not to use her full name for fear of harassment. One of our female city councilwomen received 7 drunken threatening phone calls -- threats to rape her, slit her throat, harm her kids and family -- BECAUSE her political posts ob Facebook had so infuriated a 29-yr-old YIMBT.

He threatened to keep doing it until she was forced to change her phone number.

After receiving vulgar phone calls and death threat, Palo Alto council member is speaking out

Menlo Park man pleads 'no contest' to charge of harassing Lydia Kou

Web Link

And what consequences did this guy face? He was charged with a misdemeanor and had to go to AA after which his record was expunged!

How many times have we read about other women who's also been stalked, sometines for years, only to have the DA say, "Oh, we would have loved to have charged his with a felony but he only threatened ONE woman, had he threatened multiple women, we night have been able to do more.

So Bruce, if you've never been harassed, threatened, stalked etc., please stop lecturing us about courage, especially those of us who have unique names and are easy to locate physically. We value our security and our tires in one piece.

Now, back to those companies, real estate groups, non-profits, institutions etc that are funding the YIMBYs pro-development candidates who keep screaming about thpse horrible NIMBY's and PROP 13 while never, ever saying a word about BUSINESSES that benefit even more from Prop 13 on their conmercial properties ...

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on May 23, 2022 at 6:06 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Is Palo Alto ready for any REAL reform on any important city policy? Or is it just totally hamstrung by political, bureaucratic, property owner, and special interest group haggling and infighting? Grand broad self-serving political statements are easy since they're all just useless pap --- all form and lacking real-world substance. The HARD part of "reform" is to negotiate grind out all of the details necessary to even get a chance at succeeding. And Palo Alto seems to me to be totally paralyzed because all of their reform options on anything are negative and not positive to various powerful special interest coalitions.

Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on May 24, 2022 at 1:40 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

My comments to the City Council during oral communications last night follows:

Is Palo Alto ready for campaign finance reform? That’s the Weekly’s Page 3 headline above council member responses to the research, recommendations, and advocacy of the League of Women Voters task force.

25 years ago we were a leader when this body mandated that each council candidate, prior to accepting any contribution, file a statement with the city clerk accepting or rejecting a voluntary expenditure ceiling: $14,000. The ordinance held through the ‘97 council election until suspended due to litigation of state law. And so it remains, marked and dormant today within our municipal code.

But voter approval of a statewide proposition in 2000 cleared the way for rewrites and new ordinances. Mountain View, for example, by 2006, passed a voluntary expenditure ceiling of $15,000, with penalties for those who break their pledge. A decade later they added tightened disclosure requirements for advertisements from outside groups and included in-kind contributions, i.e., goods and services, into their voluntary expenditure limit. And this year, they added mandatory per person contribution limits.

The task force draws from within this background and that of nearly three-quarters of California’s municipalities who post their rules beyond state mandate
on the Fair Political Practices Commission website. But Palo Alto has nothing yet to add.

There is no Herculian task here for city clerk and city attorney to lay out options and legal parameters. So bring on the Colleagues’ Memo for full discussion of the concepts in and related to the League’s task force.

Posted by Zach Monahan
a resident of Stanford
on May 24, 2022 at 2:27 pm

Zach Monahan is a registered user.

Where does all of this money go...towards the production and distribution of those ubiquitous lawn signs?

There can't be all that much involved in covering print and media expenditures as there are only around 3-4 local publications and SF newspaper and TV coverage is always limited.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on May 25, 2022 at 8:58 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

@Zach Online ads are certainly plentiful and probably a substantial cost for campaigns.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on May 25, 2022 at 9:01 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Greg Tanaka has a very professional and slick video ad on Facebook that popped up.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 26, 2022 at 10:43 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@mjh, that Tanaka ad is inescapable and has been stalking me for days wherever I go, whatever source I read. It reminds me of that old stalker song "Every breath you take, every step you take, I'll be watching you." ENOUGH.

Posted by Patty
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 7, 2022 at 12:21 pm

Patty is a registered user.

"Kou and Tanaka also expressed concerns about political action committees and independent expenditures, which each characterized as giant loopholes in the League's proposal." And well Tanaka should know. The newly formed PAC, DAO of America, just spent $265,250 in dark money on mailers and digital ads for Tanaka's run for congress. For more details see PA weekly article Web Link

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