Elk Grove Should Look Across the Sacramento River For a Role Model on Good Governance, Public Trust

Two nights from now The City of Elk Grove will hold a workshop to discuss the possibility of changing the city's zoning laws on bill...

Two nights from now The City of Elk Grove will hold a workshop to discuss the possibility of changing the city's zoning laws on billboards along Highway 99 and Interstate 5. While much of the controversy on this particular issue has centered on important topics such as visual blight, as it often is with these matters it can be distilled down to one thing - money.

When this issue appeared on the radar last March, it became an instant lightening rod. The developer for the proposed gas station and restaurant project is seeking to change zoning to permit an off-site billboard along Highway 99 has also made large political contributions.

While the contributions spurred criticism the developer is trying to buy influence with the Elk Grove City Council, nothing new there, the truth of the matter is that while the smell of the contributions may be foul, they are perfectly legal.

And therein lays the heart of how Elk Grove is governed.

Since incorporation in 2000, money has played a pivotal role in who gets elected to the Elk Grove City Council and the ultimate direction the city takes. In a realistic sense running for city council has evolved to the point where someone seeking office better start with at least $150,000 if they want to be considered a serious candidate.

The are two primary large money contributors - real estate developers and those affiliated with development and labor unions. Although these two groups may be ideologically different, they are both interested in seeing further expansion and development of Elk Grove.

For developers and their affiliated interests their desire to expand is obvious while unions' motivations are more subtle. Unions like operating engineers and pipefitters get more work for members when earth is moved and buildings go up while United Food Workers see development as an opportunity for more Raley's, Safeway's and Save Mart's to open and increase their membership, not to mention the added hope they can keep non-union grocers like Super Wal Mart's at bay.

Ultimately developers and unions want the same thing - money. And as the old saying goes, to make money, you have to spend money and spend it they do on Elk Grove politicians. Nothing illegal, it is just how the game is played.

But does it have to be that way? Is there some other direction the city council or Elk Grove voters could point the city in that would somewhat level the playing field between big-moneyed interest and the average Elk Grove citizen and restore a degree of public trust in at least our local government?

All we have to do is look across the Sacramento River and see what the City of West Sacramento did in 2004. In their own words they said "local government should serve the needs and respond to all citizens equally, without regard to wealth" and placed self-imposed campaign contributions limits on themselves.

Although the ordinance was slightly modified in 2010 based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, much of original ordinance remains in place. Here is basic description of how it works.

During any election cycle, each candidate is limited to $250 donations from any individual or group for that four year period. A candidate can self-finance and if they contribute more than $2,500 to their campaign all the other candidates (not just those opposing that particular candidate) can then accept up to $500 contributions for that four year cycle if they choose.

Can you imagine how the political landscape would change in Elk Grove if we had such limits?

Would the city council be so hell-bent on expanding the city via the sphere of influence absent large contributions from real estate developers and labor unions funding their campaigns? In the absence of a treasure trove of cash a candidate who supports expansion could face a credible challenge from someone with an opposing view.

Imagine that - we could have an election based more on positions than on the size of one's campaign chest. And who is not to say in a more level playing field proponents of expansion may still prevail based on merit and not the size of their war chest.

Unfortunately we don't have that environment just yet in Elk Grove. But change is possible.

Perhaps next year the city council seated at that time will have the courage to make this change. Short of a sea-change in the makeup of the council, there shouldn't be a major shake-up with the exception of this year's first ever mayoral race.

Perhaps Mayor Jim Cooper, who would be starting his fourth term and the only remaining original council member, could be Elk Grove's own Hiram Johnson and leave a major mark on the future of our city rather than just being it's first mayor and an original council member.

Maybe council members Gary Davis, who could be or our first elected mayor and Steve Detrick, who could be entering his second term, have experienced first hand the inherent flaws of our the campaign contribution game that en snarls otherwise decent politicians. As Congressman Dan Lungen has so wisely said, he has known only two fellow congress members who enjoyed fundraising and they are both in prison.

And who is to say Council Member Pat Hume couldn't support this. At the last city council meeting Hume jokingly expressed the hope that he would not be on the council in the future. Talk about cementing a legacy - the hometown boy leaving office as a reformer.

Short of the city council having the intestinal fortitude to take a stand to restore public trust and fair governance, an initiative limiting campaign contribution could be placed on the ballot in the future to let the voters decide. Of course if this initiative did qualify for the ballot, a big if to be sure, it would face an uphill battle and smear campaign from whom else but the developers and labor unions.

So as we stand five months before the general election, we urge anybody who comes in contact with a city council or mayoral candidate to ask them if they would be willing to support an ordinance limiting campaign contributions. We certainly hope Elk Grove voters and politicians can see the wisdom our neighbors across the river in West Sacramento possess.

EGN invites each current city council member and city council or mayoral candidate to provide a response to the following question - If you are on the Elk Grove City Council in January, 2013, would you sponsor or support a city ordinance limiting campaign contributions made each election cycle? Furthermore, EGN invites and encourages any real estate developer, those involved in real estate development, labor union or any other interested party who opposes limiting campaign contributions to submit an opposing view. EGN will gladly publish the response unedited.  

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Sarah Johnson said...

Good idea. Look at how successful West Sacramento has been reinventing itself and making good planning decisions.

Connie said...

In the Davis, Detrick and Hume campaigns, before they were elected, all three had as part of their platforms, campaign finance reform. Maybe it is time we hold them to that one promise. It is sorely needed.

Spending over $200,00 to get elected, as was the case in 2006 to unseat an incumbent for a council seat, borders on the obscene.

Their reasoning, "To level the playing field."

Capt. Benjamin L. Willard said...

This is an interesting proposition. I can't help but wonder in the aftermath of the "Citizens United" case the unions and developers could simply form a PAC for their candidate?

No Such Thing as Anonymous said...

The only factor likely stopping this from happening is that untamed inner beast known as "ego". Just as some of their campaign war chests have swollen, so have their egos and feelings of self importance.

You start limiting campaign contributions, then how are bigwigs gonna distinguish themselves from the "little people"! You make the club too accessible to join, then you'll diminish the reward to their ego.

That puffing noise you hear isn't just the closing of businesses in our shopping centers, it's also the sound of egos filling up with air. Good thing it ain't helium, or we might have some mighty scary UFO sightings in Elk Grove!

Anonymous said...

Well said. we need to get a new council. as long as we keep voting for the same we will get the same.

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