Councilmember Mike O'Brien
Council takes steps to strengthen trust and participation in local democracy
Seattle – Today the Seattle City Council moved to strengthen Seattle's local democracy and increase civic trust and participation by reforming Seattle's campaign finance laws. Council Bill 117548 (approved with a 7-2 vote) imposes two new rules for candidates running for local office by prohibiting candidates from rolling over surplus campaign funds from one campaign to the next, and by creating a fundraising window for all candidates seeking local office.
"These changes are about demonstrating to the people of Seattle that City elected leaders are focused on representing them, not working for re-election," said Councilmember Mike O'Brien, primary sponsor of the bill. "I hope our actions today help ensure that every person in this city feels like their voice can be heard, no matter how much money they have."
"The public's frustration with the influence of money in politics grows with every election, especially at the federal level. Cities can lead the way toward a healthier and more accountable political system," said Councilmember Tim Burgess, co-sponsor and Chair of the Government Performance and Finance Committee that initially heard the legislation. "This legislation moves strongly in that direction and reinforces Seattle's support for fair and transparent local elections."
"This legislation emphasizes that our city government represents people not dollars; it will encourage more people to get out and vote, because the value of each vote will not be diminished by money driven campaigns," said Councilmember Nick Licata, co-sponsor of the bill.
The fundraising window creates a specific period of time that candidates seeking local office can solicit or accept campaign contributions. The new fundraising window would run from January 1 of the year before an election to April 30 of the year following the election (candidates currently have several months after an election to retire debt and close up their books). The window will limit the actual or perceived influence of campaign contributions on elected officials by reducing the amount of time that elected officials are fundraising and making policy at the same time.
The State of Washington, along with 16 other states, currently prohibits State elected officials from fundraising during the legislative session. Cities around the country such as Houston, San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose and Los Angeles also have similar fundraising windows in place for local races.
The second provision prohibits the rollover of surplus funds for future races. The law requires candidates to dispose of all surplus funds at the end of the fundraising window (April 30 of the year following their election) by returning contributions to donors or donating the funds to the City or a non-profit. This provision ensures that donor intent behind contributions is being honored (i.e., "this candidate, this race, these issues") and reduces the perception of corruption by minimizing fundraising in uncompetitive races.
Council Bill 117548 responds to Resolution 31337, passed in November of 2011 during the height of the Occupy Seattle movement. Section 2.6 called on the City to analyze how city election campaigns are currently financed and explore alternatives. The proposal was drafted after reviewing campaign finance data collected by the Seattle Ethics & Elections Commission for all candidates in local races over the past 12 years.
The proposal has been endorsed by the Seattle Ethics & Elections Commission and numerous organizations, including League of Women Voters, Washington Public Campaigns, One America, Statewide Poverty Action Network, as well as labor, environmental and other member-based organizations.
Seattle has long been a national leader in promoting clean, ethical, transparent local elections. Seattle first established the Board of Ethics and Fair Campaign Practices in 1971 and was the first municipality in the nation to adopt public financing of campaigns back in 1979. In 1991 Seattle established the current Ethics and Elections Commission and, more recently, the City Council chartered the Commission on Public Financing in 2008 to explore viable models for bringing back publicly supported campaigns.
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