By. Patti Shea
Record spending by political action committees in the last City Council election has prompted one council member to call for a change in campaign spending limits.
Councilman Cameron Smyth announced Friday that he will seek to untie the loophole that allows PACs to pour thousands of dollars into city elections.
Smyth said when the council returns from its summer break, he will submit an ordinance for council consideration to curb PAC spending.
“I want to bring PACs to the same level as candidate committees,” Smyth said.
Under the city’s current rules, individuals can give no more than $250 to a single candidate in an election, but PACs can spend an unlimited amount on a candidate. Smyth wants to impose the same $250 limit on expenditures by PACs on behalf of candidates.
“This is the first time we saw PACs play a pivotal role in an election,” he said.
In April, nearly a half-dozen PACs and private businesses accumulated roughly $70,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of City Council candidates.
Approximately $22,000 was spent on behalf of first-place finisher, Mayor Frank Ferry, while runner-up Marsha McLean had $21,644 spent on her behalf. Former mayor Jan Heidt, who finished fourth in the race, had $11,000 in expenditures.
PACs operate independenly from the candidates’ own campaign committees; the law forbids candidates from being actively involved in PAC decisions and they cannot acquire or spend PACmoney themselves.
Waste Management Inc., parent company of local trash haulers Blue Barrel Disposal and Santa Clarita Disposal, spent more than $32,000 in the election.
The nation’s No. 1 trash hauling company gave $20,000 to a PAC run by developer consultant Allan Cameron, who in turn paid for two mailers: one touting Ferry, McLean and Heidt, and a second supporting just Ferry and McLean. Waste Management also paid $12,000 to fund phone banks for McLean and Ferry.
“If anyone thinks that the roughly $50,000 spent by PACs during the last two weeks did not impact this election, they are simply in denial,” Smyth said.
Allan Cameron said he supports campaign reform both nationally and locally.
“It needs to be done in a uniform way that is fair to the electorate,” Cameron said. “If it’s that easy, it would have been done by now.”
Citizens for Responsible Government, run by SCV Democratic Club President Roberta Gillis, spent more than $10,000 on Ferry and Heidt.
Gillis said she doesn’t have a problem with Smyth’s proposal.
“As long as the game is being played, I’m going to play,” she said.
Gillis said she is for campaign finance reform on all government levels, but said there will be some loopholes.
“There always are,” she said.
Gillis questioned Smyth’s motives.
“I think (Smyth)is doing this to protect his own ass,” she said.
Smyth’s council seat is up in April 2004, but the councilman has also expressed interest in running for state assembly, if the seat becomes vacant in November. Assemblyman Keith Richman is running for mayor of the proposed San Fernando Valley city.
“I’m doing this (campaign finance reform)because it’s the right thing to do,” Smyth responded. “I could utilize PACs to my benefit as a candidate. I see this as limiting my own options.”
Developer Larry Rasmussen, who formed the Newhall Civic Improvement Alliance PAC for the election, said it was about time spending limits were set.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Rasmussen, whose committee spent $3,900 on behalf of third-place finisher Laurene Weste. “They should have done it a long time ago.”
Smyth’s fellow council members welcomed the proposal.
“The ordinance will create a more level playing field, so that it will keep special interests from improperly influencing city elections with large amounts of money in the last 10 days of a campaign, where these dollars are not even reported until after the election is over,” Weste said.
Weste said she believes all of the rules must be the same for everyone. The two-time council member raised $35,203 in individual contributions, second to Ferry who raised $57,000.
“I believe this is a positive thing,” she said.
Councilman Bob Kellar agreed.
“Following our last election, it caused me to become concerned about the influence that PACs can have on the outcome of an election,” he said.
Kellar, whose seat is up in 2004, said he hasn’t had a chance to look at Smyth’s proposal, but is open to local reform.
“Elections need to be carried out in as responsible a manner as possible,” Kellar added.
McLean also acknowledged that changes are needed.
“Special interests have been influencing Santa Clarita for years, making it impossible for grass-roots candidates to compete,” said McLean, who raised $8,744 in individual contributions.
McLean proposes a $30,000 spending limit for all candidates – including individual donations and PAC expenditures.
“The only way to have a truly level playing field is to have a cap on the amount that can be spent,” she said. “That would eliminate PAC influence.”
Smyth acknowledged that even if the council adopts his ordinance, it is possible for money to be given illegally.
“Whether the limits are in place or not, there’s always the possibility of people circumventing the law to impact the election. I would hope that would not be the case,” Smyth said.