RICHMOND -- Rebuffed by a recent federal court decision, the City Council this week approved a scaled-back campaign-disclosure ordinance regulating mass mailing of political fliers.
A U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco ruled Sept. 7 in favor of a beverage industry-funded campaign group that sued the city over its campaign-disclosure ordinance, finding that ordinance violated the First Amendment's free speech protection.
The modified rules approved Tuesday removed key provisions of the original ordinance, including criminal penalties and requirements that financial disclosures take up 25 percent of the front page of mailers distributed to Richmond voters.
"I think we have addressed the judge's concerns, and I don't think (the opposition) is interested in challenging this," Councilman Jim Rogers said.
The modified ordinance passed 5-2.
The new rules still include a $5,000 fine for violations and requirements that disclosure of major donors be on the front page, separated from political claims by at least one-half inch.
The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, which is funded by the American Beverage Association, has spent more than $350,000 to try to defeat Measure N, a November ballot measure that could force local businesses to pay a penny-per-ounce tax on sales of sugar-sweetened beverages. A companion measure advises the city to spend the estimated $3 million in annual revenues on recreation and
The coalition sued in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Aug. 30, arguing First Amendment violations.
Council opponents of the ordinance and some residents criticized supporters for rushing to conduct the first reading of the revised rules during a special council meeting during working hours on Thursday. Rogers said the council had to act quickly to ensure that the city had an ordinance in place during campaign season.
Dissenting Councilmen Corky Booze and Nat Bates also criticized their council colleagues for spending about $30,000 to retain outside counsel for the hearings in federal court. City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller defended the expenditure, calling it a "hometown discount."
The city hired former City Attorney Randy Riddle of Renne, Sloan, Holtzman & Sakai to hear the case.
Bates said of the supporters of the tax and the ordinance, "This council underestimates the intelligence of the voters of this city."
Councilman Jeff Ritterman, the leading proponent of the beverage tax, disagreed.
"This is another right to know, an education piece," Ritterman said. "Big corporations are behind these mailers, and Richmond voters should know."
The anti-tax mailers must also follow state-mandated disclosure rules indicating major funding sources.
The ordinance, the first version of which was passed by the council in June, still requires all mass mailings be accompanied by the words "Major funding by:" followed by the names of the three largest contributors who have given at least $2,500 to a campaign committee.
According to the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes Campaign spending report, the group has spent more than $354,000 so far on the "No on N" campaign, with most funding provided by the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association. The pro-tax side has spent about $7,300.
The City Council voted 5-2 in May to put the tax on the November ballot. Richmond could become the first city in the nation to impose such a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, which tax proponents say is a public health menace similar to cigarettes, especially for children. Opponents view the tax as regressive and a drag on local commerce. The Los Angeles County city of El Monte has an identical measure on its November ballot.