Three SLO County supervisors just handed special interests — oil companies, developers, the cannabis industry, among others — the opportunity to have even more influence in county elections.
At a special meeting Friday, Supervisors John Peschong, Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton approved a campaign donation cap of $25,000 — an amount opponents described as “abominable,” “absurd,” “insane,” “ridiculous” and “obscene,” among other adjectives.
Never before have we seen such blatant disregard for public opinion in San Luis Obispo County government.
The three conservatives on the board looked at the issue entirely through the lens of how candidates would benefit from the high limit — ignoring what the voters want.
If it’s any consolation, it may come back to the bite them in future elections — one speaker said she’s already planning to contribute to their opponents.
JUSTIFICATIONS FOR BIG MONEY
Despite more than 700 comments in opposition to the $25,000 cap — and only one in favor — the board majority never wavered.
They condescendingly schooled the audience on how campaigns work and why money is important.
They reiterated that large donations would allow candidates to defend themselves against negative campaigning by independent expenditure committees that have no spending limit, thanks to the Citizens United decision.
And they implied that the $25,000 limit is actually a step in the right direction, since there currently is no campaign donation limit at all — and that never seemed to bother anyone before.
That’s not surprising; issues often fly under the radar until something happens to bring them to light.
In this case, the catalyst was passage of a state law that requires cities and counties to either set their own contribution limit for local races by the end of this year, or follow state law, which caps donations at $4,700.
The state law also puts enforcement of the rule in the hands of state’s Fair Political Practices Commission — something SLO County’s three conservative supervisors very much opposed.
“Sending our issues to Sacramento I don’t think is a good idea,” said Arnold.
Instead of allowing the FPPC to handle enforcement, they put District Attorney Dan Dow in charge — to the dismay of Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who has called Dow an “unabashed partisan.”
The other three supervisors leaped to Dow’s defense.
“He always, always, always follows the rule of law,” said Peschong.
Arnold called him “a person with so much integrity that I have complete confidence in his ability to act in a nonbiased way.”
Compton — who had similar words of praise for Dow — pointed out that office holders change over time.
Yet no matter who the DA is, that person will always have some sort of relationship with the county’s other elected officials.
That’s exactly why enforcement of county campaign laws should be in the hands of a neutral party — if for no other reason than to assure the public there is no conflict of interest.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Of course, if supervisors cared about the public’s perception of a conflict of interest, they would have handled this much differently from the get go.
Or at the very least, they would have shown some willingness to compromise by setting a lower limit.
Instead, they offered more weak justifications:
- Peschong pointed out that other counties have higher caps.
- The ordinance can always be changed later.
- Large donations to candidates are rare.
None of these addresses the fundamental concern of the more than 700 people who contacted the county.
They see big money in politics as a corrupting influence — an idea politicians themselves have perpetuated with the “pay to play” accusations they level against their opponents.
Both Compton and Arnold have called out their opponents for taking large donations in past campaigns — yet now they’re doing a 180 and saying big donations are OK?
This can’t be allowed to stand.
SLO County voters who want to see less money in politics — not more — have a couple of options.
They can collect enough signatures to put a revised campaign contribution ordinance on the ballot.
Or they can hold Supervisors Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong accountable at the ballot box, should they seek reelection.
Either way, it’s time to remind these county supervisors of the way democracy works: Elected officials serve at the pleasure of the voters — not the other way around.
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