BERKELEY -- If you want to get money out of politics, start locally with public financing of elections in Berkeley, speakers said at a Wednesday evening forum on the UC Berkeley campus sponsored by the university chapter of Common Cause.
"I think that local is the most important place where we have an opportunity to make change happen," California Common Cause State Program Manager Leila Pedersen said, contending that when corporate and PAC money is removed from campaigns, people will elect a more diverse set of public officials.
If elections were financed by the public, "the things that we in Berkeley care about would have a much better chance of being adopted locally, statewide and nationally," including legislation favorable to labor, consumer and environmental rights, said panelist Councilman Kriss Worthington, noting that he's tried to get public financing passed in Berkeley for more than a decade.
The draft Berkeley Fair Elections Act of 2015, which must be approved by voters, would amend the city's campaign finance law and City Charter. On Nov. 10, the council will discuss placing the measure on the November 2016 ballot.
The legislation would limit candidate spending. Proposed caps are: mayor, $100,000; City Council, $40,000; auditor and school board, $15,000; and rent board, $5,000.
Currently, individuals can contribute up to $250 per candidate. Proposed legislation limits contributions to no more than $50 per candidate. The city would give candidates accepting the voluntary limits six times the amount of the contributions collected.
Like other contributors, candidates could give or loan their campaigns only the $50 limit. Donors must be individuals -- not PACs -- and live in Berkeley.
The city's general fund would provide funding at $4 per resident or about $500,000, increasing with the cost of living.
Panelist Jay Costa helped write the legislation when he was with MapLight, a Berkeley-based organization that studies the influence of money on politics.
"If you look at the last few (election) cycles in Berkeley, in seven out of eight council races, the person who raised and spent the most money won," Costa said.
In addition to Common Cause and MapLight, the local League of Women Voters supports the measure.
No formal opposition has come forward, panelists said.
However, at a Fair Campaign Practices Commission workshop in April, Commissioner Sherry Smith raised concerns about using general fund money.
And at the same time, FCPC Chairman Brad Smith wrote to his fellow commissioners: "The expense of the public financing of elections when measured against competing demands for scarce resources is not worth the cost."
In June, the FCPC split 5-3 in recommending support for the measure.
Worthington said he would support tweaking the measure to gain a majority council vote. There has been talk about raising the campaign spending limits and removing the school board from the measure, he said.
While urging the mostly student audience to lobby the council, Worthington cautioned that passage of the measure is not a panacea to all the ills facing Berkeley.
Nonetheless, elections will become "a battle with a more level playing field," he said. "We'll have a chance of winning."
The council will discuss public financing of elections at its meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at Longfellow Middle School, 1500 Derby St.