San Jose talks campaign finance after dramatic and costly election
San Jose District 2 Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said he is concerned about the public losing trust in elections. File photo.

As San Jose winds down from a feisty and expensive election season, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez asked lawmakers to rethink campaign finance regulations to help restore public trust in local government.

“We’ve seen an astonishing amount of money spent on negative, divisive and often — as we all recall —  misleading or outright false advertisements,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez cited the staggering $588,000 in independent expenditures contributed by the Silicon Valley Organization Political Action Committee, a powerful business PAC that disbanded following criticism over a racist attack ad.

He also noted the South Bay Labor Council spent $430,000 to influence the election. The groups have also been the driving financial forces behind San Jose City Council’s business vs. labor divide.

“Obviously that’s a lot of money,” Jimenez said at a Nov. 18 Rules and Open Government Committee meeting. “What we know is that toxic campaign practices really diminish public trust and harm the integrity of elections.”

The Rules and Open Government Committee sets future agendas for the City Council and reviews items that do not need the approval of the entire council. Members include Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, Johnny Khamis and Dev Davis.

Jimenez and residents unpacked their grievances about the recent election so the city could begin taking action.

Jimenez said he was not looking to attack any particular independent expenditure committee, but said many voters felt misled during November’s exhausting election.

“I spent over a year talking to residents about building trust, through our political system and talking about things like publicly funded elections,” said Jake Tonkel, who lost the District 6 race against Davis. “From the national level down to us, there has been immense amounts of distrust sowed through our political system.”

Tonkel said campaign finance reform should be a top priority for San Jose moving forward.

Tonkel had more independent expenditure money thrown into the ring to oppose him than any other City Council candidate this past election.

“The fundamental cornerstone of our democracy is people’s ability to vote and trust that their vote matters and when so much money is thrown into these races, it does cause distrust and negative feelings,” resident Emily Ann Ramos said.

The committee unanimously approved a study session for spring that will look at limiting conflicts of interest, independent expenditure spending and prohibiting foreign-influenced contributions. The study session will include campaign law experts, and any major changes would make their way back to the City Council.

Jimenez said limiting independent expenditure contributions would level the playing field for candidates. He said while Citizens United prohibits caps on independent expenditures, San Jose might be able to adopt a local limit.

Jimenez suggested the city create a central online location for campaign finance disclosure information and require the website to be listed on campaign advertisements. He also asked that campaign committees give a copy of any mailers or flyers to the city clerk to keep a neutral archive in the interest of transparency.

The format could be modeled after the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s AdWATCH. Jimenez also proposed giving the San Jose Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices more power to enforce campaign regulations.

City Attorney Nora Frimann said any campaign finance reforms will need to undergo legal analysis, which could take time.

“As a local youth trying to break into politics like this, this past election doesn’t inspire absolutely any confidence that I can break in and make a difference in local politics,” said resident Angel Madero. “It’s just so disheartening. It’s so intimidating,”

Madero said the big money in San Jose politics takes away agency from those trying to make positive change.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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