January 15, 2021
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Sebastopol City Council: Campaign finance reform coming to Sebastopol

By: Joshua Farestveit-Moore
November 20, 2020

Sebastopol City Council might have punted election reform at their last meeting, but the issue seems to have come back, catching most by surprise. 

The issue at hand? California’s recent passage of Assembly Bill 571, which goes into effect this coming January. It establishes a $4,700 limit on campaign contributions per individual in all municipalities which do not already have some form of campaign finance law. Basically, what that means is that if the city hasn’t done something already, then the $4,700 limit would be the default.

Most cities in Sonoma County have passed some sort of campaign finance law, rendering this bill moot.

Sebastopol hasn’t. 

Which means a candidate for a Sebastopol office in the 2020 election cycle could have received, theoretically, any amount of money from an individual or corporation. Word of Assembly Bill 571 seemed to shock the council into action. The outside imposed limit served as a reminder that donations could, in theory, go much higher. 

“It’s sitting right in front of us, so it seems kind of wrong to let $4,700 carry. We’re so small. That number looks like it’s for San Francisco,” Councilmember Neysa Hinton said. 

Outgoing Councilmember Michael Carnacchi echoed her, proposing the council move towards something similar to Cotati’s campaign finance restrictions. 

Cotati places a $200 limit on all individual contributions. “If we want to be a county leader then we should have the lowest,” Carnacchi said, naming $100 as a ballpark figure. 

While none of his fellow councilmembers looked ready to go quite that low, they all seemed amenable to some sort of action. 

With the January 1 deadline to establish something before Assembly Bill 571 goes into effect, many of the council voiced eagerness to put something into effect, but Councilmember Sarah Gurney voiced caution. Responsibility for enforcement of Assembly Bill 571 will fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Political Practices Commission, but if Sebastopol passes their own legislation overriding the bill then the responsibility shifts to the city. That means money and time. 

 “If we’re going to do something that puts the burden on staff, we’ve got to make sure the staff can do it,” Gurney said. 

That seemed to convince most of the council to tap the brakes. They agreed to revisit the issue in early January once both council and staff had a better opportunity to prepare. 

“I think the message has been loud and clear,” Mayor Patrick Slayter said. “Sebastopol is interested in this, and we’ll make some Sebastopol appropriate decisions as soon as it comes back.”