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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Voter-Owned Elections: Controversy 2010

Posted by Matt Davis on Wed, Apr 29, 2009 at 3:40 PM

The Citizen Campaign Commission delivered its second biennial report on voter-owned elections to city council this afternoon. The report itself is pretty vanilla, but the issue of voter-owned elections is really going to heat up next year when it's likely to go before the voters in a referendum.

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MONEY IN POLITICS: IS A CAMPAIGN DONATION EVER JUST A CAMPAIGN DONATION?

Voter-owned elections have had a checkered history since they started in Portland back in 2005: Former council candidate Emilie Boyles ran off with the public money in 2006 and is yet to pay any of it back, for example. On the other hand last November, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz won election to council using public funds. Go democracy!

Under the system, any candidate can get public money to run a political campaign if they collect enough signatures and $5 contributions. The aim is to reduce the amount of money spent on political campaigns, increase the diversity of viable candidates and reduce the influence of special interests in Portland politics.

The report makes a series of recommendations including better training for candidates on the process, shortening the qualifying period for candidates, and tightening up the financial rules so that polling done before an election begins would count towards the public financing limit—blurring around this issue caused controversy during the 2008 mayoral election.

Then came the burning question.

"If we were to refer the voters in 2010, do you have a recommendation on the timing of that referral?" asked City Commissioner Nick Fish of auditor Gary Blackmer.

Fish beat a publicly-funded candidate, Jim Middaugh, in last November's election. He's also up for reelection next year and, ahem, has faced questions in the past about the effect of campaign donations on his decision making on the sit/lie ordinance. It's unclear whether he plans to take an active role in the referral effort next year, but he has always been a vocal questioner of voter-owned elections on the apparent principle that he's too independent to be influenced by money.

Blackmer said he thought it might be best to refer the idea to voters next November, after Fish's reelection campaign is over, but the CCC agreed to take a look at the idea over the coming months. Fish then brought up his concerns about voter-owned elections, in a possible precursor to next year's referendum debate.

"I've been on this body almost a year," said Fish. "I have come to appreciate the fact that my colleagues are very independent people, and I'm constantly surprised by how independent. And I regularly see my colleagues cast votes that seem to go against the people who elected and supported them, and I say that almost without exception."

"But the one premise I still don't understand is the notion that large contributions render politicians beholden to the contributor, and I think that's an interesting point, it's just something that I haven't experienced," he said.

"I guess as an auditor I'm very sensitive to appearance and potential conflicts of interest," said Auditor Gary Blackmer. "And we look at all those things that can undermine organizational credibility. I've been trained in the fact that appearance is a critical element for a public body or a public official. I don't think anywhere we've said that the city council was compromised in its decision-making, but polling of the public has shown consistently that they think money influences politics." More after the jump.

"The public always sees that money as a suspicious linkage that you have with a special interest," Blackmer continued.

Fish said he's maybe just troubled by the word 'beholden.' "I just want to push back gently on the broad perception that people are 'beholden'," he said.

"I find it very reassuring that you say that," said CCC chair Leslie Hildula. "But if you look back at the history of Portland Politics, it has not always been that way."

"Just because there's a perception that something is the case doesn't necessarily mean it is the case," said Commissioner Randy Leonard. "For example people think I am beholden to the fire union, but Commissioner Fritz was endorsed last time by the fire union and I was not. We make decisions every day that make some of our supporters so angry that they won't endorse us again."

"We could have a long philosophical discussion about perceptions versus reality, but I think everyone would accept that politics has allowed the intermingling of perceptions and reality," said Blackmer.

"I'm stuck in reality," Leonard struck back.

"Voter-owned elections continue to be a top priority for our members," said Bus Project board member Jake Oken-Berg. "The program is a shining example of Portland leading the nation as a progressive city. It forces campaigns to put a premium on person to person contact, particularly in the initial stages of any campaign."

"I think there's a risk in over-generalizing about the role of money in politics," said Fish. "I do think that our system is a little different. We're not the state legislature, and there's an unprecedented level of transparency in city government."

All the same, I like voter-owned elections. I think they do what they're intended to do, and also, they hold the incumbent city commissioners accountable for their election promises. I'm looking forward to next year's debate, and to following this issue closely over the coming months.

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