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Turlockers talk ethics at campaign finance workshop
Council expected to address possible campaign finance regulation at next meeting
campaign finance pic
Mayor Gary Soiseth addresses attendees at the June 15 campaign finance workshop held at Dennis Earl Elementary. - photo by KRISTINA HACKER / The Journal

The Turlock City Council finished its series of special community workshops on campaign finance last week and is expected to address the issue at their June 28 regular council meeting.

The workshops — held in each of Turlock's four new electoral districts —  were scheduled as "opportunities to increase transparency at City Hall" and to "hear any new ideas that Turlock’s residents might have to accomplish this goal," according to Mayor Gary Soiseth.

Campaign finance was one of the issues brought forth during the Council meetings held from December 2015 through March that resulted in the change in process of selecting an operator for the downtown farmers’ market.

Council member Steven Nascimento has been advocating for the adoption of campaign finance regulations that would disqualify a council member from voting on an issue that financially impacts a large campaign contributor.

"Transparency without accountability is meaningless. We have to have a way to hold people accountable to their actions. If there aren't' any rules in place, there isn't any recourse for the public. The only accountability is elections and they don't come until every four years and I don't think that's enough," said Nascimento.

Although he is hoping to get a disqualification ordinance adopted, he said that any campaign finance regulation would be better than what the City has now.

"I moved forward with a disqualification ordinance, but if all we can find agreement on is a campaign contribution limit, I'm happy to support that because any reform is better than no regulations at all," he said.

Each of the four workshops began with a presentation by City Attorney Phaedra Norton on the City of Turlock's campaign regulation history, a review of the Political Reform Act and constitutional protections that apply to contribution and expenditure limits.

While the City of Turlock follows all regulations in the Political Reform Act, the City does not have a limit on the amount of money an individual can donate to a candidate's campaign or an ordinance that prohibits a Council member on voting on items that financially affect campaign donors.

The Political Reform Act requires elected officers, candidates and committees to file campaign statements by specified deadlines disclosing contributions received and expenditures made. These documents are public and can be audited by the Fair Political Practices Commission and Franchise Tax Board to ensure voters are fully informed and improper practices are prohibited.

Norton also addressed possible campaign finance regulations and how they might stand up to a constitutional challenge, with disclosure regulations, voluntary expenditure limits and contribution limits on individuals, corporations and unions getting a "green light" and expenditure limits, independent expenditures and contribution limits on independent expenditure committees, ballot measure committees and by the candidate getting a "red light" when it comes to possible legality.

Norton also left the audience with the following cautionary notes: "Campaign finance regulations are a rapidly evolving and very nuanced area of the law. Therefore, what is permissible to regulate today many not be permissible to regulate in the future."

For Turlock Planning Commissioner Soraya Fregosi, who attended the June 15 campaign finance workshop held at Dennis Earl Elementary, regulating campaign finance is a matter of ethics.

"What about ethics? Is that brought up at all?...There is nothing about ethical behavior, impropriety, or the appearance of impropriety," she said.

Fregosi also found it contradictory that she, as an appointed commissioner, had to recuse herself from voting on an issue with the Turlock Unified School District because she was  paid $500 for substitute teaching, but a city council member could vote on matters that financially affect an individual who donated thousands of dollars to that council member's campaign.

Norton clarified that state law imposes different standards on appointed officials and those elected to office and campaign contributions are considered an individual's right to free speech.

Also attending the June 15 workshop was former Mayor Brad Bates and former Council member Mary Jackson, who along with former Council member Ron Hillberg, recently started a petition to put a campaign finance regulation on the November ballot and then decided to hold off on filing it with the City Clerk's office.

"It's withdrawn to give the Council the opportunity to act on the issue," said Bates.

While they decided to hold off on filing their petition with the City Clerk's office, Bates and Jackson are still advocating for a campaign finance ordinance.

"I can connect the dots between donors and projects," said Jackson.

The City has not yet released the agenda for the June 28 City Council meeting, however, Mayor Soiseth stated during the June 15 workshop that the Council will have the opportunity to act on regulations based on Nascimento's proposal, Bates' proposal and other options.