In California, the Political Reform Act imposes contribution limits for state candidates and generally requires all candidates and committees to disclose campaign contributions and expenditures. However, the act leaves contribution limits for local candidates up to local governments.
Unfortunately, many communities – including Turlock – have not exercised their ability to impose limits on campaign contributions.
As a candidate for the Turlock City Council in 2012, I was surprised to learn the city did not have contribution limits and that council members and candidates could receive unlimited contributions from donors without creating a conflict of interest. Without an ordinance in place, a council member could theoretically receive a $5,000 contribution one week, and vote on an issue that financially benefited that donor the next week – something most anyone would find highly objectionable.
It was with this in mind that I introduced a “Tin Cup” ordinance – Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics – for consideration by the Turlock City Council in 2014. The proposed ordinance would have barred any council member from participating in a vote that involved someone who had contributed more than $2,000 to the council member’s campaign.
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The premise was simple, but the politics were not. The ordinance was ultimately defeated by a 3-2 vote of the council.
Some suggested the ordinance called into question the “morals and ethics” of individual council members, and that this was somehow inappropriate. Others simply stated that restrictions on campaign contributions would “hurt their way of doing business.”
To be fair, the ordinance would have certainly made it more difficult for those looking to use campaign contributions to buy influence – but that was the point.
Why Tin Cup?
The time is now: Turlock’s politics are changing. The city has recently made the move to district elections. This change means council candidates no longer need to raise inordinate amounts of money to run reasonable campaigns. Contribution limits should not encumber any candidates willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard for their neighbor’s vote.
We need to clean up politics. Recent news reports have chronicled Turlock’s current political woes. It has been a tough pill to swallow for a community that prides itself on good government and positive headlines. I think we can all agree that our politics could use a healthy dose of Purell.
At the last meeting of the city council, Mayor Gary Soiseth announced he would be bringing back to council a discussion of the Tin Cup ordinance. I hope his intentions are genuine, and that this surprise announcement is not simply a cynical political ploy aimed at derailing the efforts of others who are committed to real reform. It’s time to clean up our politics. Sweeping this mess under the rug won’t cut it.
Now more than ever, I believe that Turlock needs a “Tin Cup” ordinance. Not only to rebuild the trust of our community, but to protect council members and donors alike. With the adoption of a Tin Cup ordinance, council members will have clear rules to govern their conduct, and donors will have a clear understanding of the limits of their contributions. Those wishing to give generously to candidates will still be able to do so, but will also know that they cannot expect anything in return.
With the reintroduction of the Tin Cup ordinance, our residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on the debate, and help us establish campaign finance reform measures that not only reflect good practice and good government, but the ethical standards and values shared by our community. I trust my fellow council members will see the wisdom in these reforms and will join me – and our community – in supporting them.
Steven Nascimento is a member of the Turlock City Council.