SAN JOSE -- Suggestions from Mayor Chuck Reed and other San Jose City Council members for improving the city's election rules got a skeptical hearing before a citizens commission Thursday.

The council-appointed San Jose Elections Commission reviewed 20 suggested changes to the city's elections laws, including Reed's proposal to suspend contribution and expenditure caps for candidate campaigns, Councilman Don Rocha's idea to automatically recount close races and Councilman Kansen Chu's request to eliminate disclosure requirements for campaign related buttons, signs and shirts.

The suggestions from the city's elected leaders could influence next year's mayoral and council races if the council adopts them later this year. But they didn't go over too well with commissioners or with the handful of folks who attended the special meeting. Reed's idea, in particular, took a drubbing.

The mayor made his pitch after noting that independent campaign expenditures in the District 8 re-election challenge to his ally Councilwoman Rose Herrera totaled nearly $265,000, more than the amount spent by all the candidates combined. He pointed out that since the U.S. Supreme Court's recent "Citizens United" ruling, calling campaign spending limits on independent committees unconstitutional free-speech violations, those committees now have the upper hand over candidates themselves.

"Candidates have and will be placed at an extreme disadvantage," Reed wrote in his proposal to the commission.

But critics said eliminating contribution and expenditure limits would make things worse, making candidates beholden to big-money donors.

"Big money does not make better government," said Gloria Chun Hoo, president of the League of Women Voters of San Jose/Santa Clara.

Craig Dunkerly of the California Clean Money Campaign said the city should work to improve disclosure of political donors instead of lifting the campaign contribution caps.

"Lifting contribution limits will simply move us backwards to the days when candidates were forced to court large donors at the expense of interaction with average voters," Dunkerly said.

Commissioners seemed to agree.

"I think I sense a consensus that we're probably not coming back with a recommendation in favor," said Commission Chairman Michael Smith.

For his part, Chu argued that buttons and other personal attire promoting a candidate is different from mass mailings that require disclosure of who paid for them. Subjecting signs, buttons and shirts to the same disclosure rule, he argued, would tread on free speech. He had been accused during his re-election last year of violating such disclosure requirements.

"Displaying a lawn sign or wearing a button or T-shirt is a silent expression of speech protected by the First Amendment," Chu wrote.

But Fred Rehhausser, a consultant, disagreed.

"This is very deceptive," Rehhausser said.

Smith added that with courts restricting contribution limits, "disclosure is more and more all you've got left. I'd find it very difficult to do away with it."

Rocha's recount suggestion was aimed at bolstering public confidence in close races where candidates can't afford to pay for a recount themselves. Some like Hoo agreed.

But others said it was unnecessary, noting that even in very close races they'd seldom seen the outcome changed by a recount.

"I've been involved in lots and lots of recounts," said Commissioner Lind Edgeworth, "and I've rarely seen any kind of overturned election."

Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.