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By C. Jayden Smith

San Clemente City Council unanimously voted last week to make campaign finance information more transparent and accessible to the public after a vigorous discussion at its May 25 meeting.

The city will soon look to produce synopses of 460 forms, or campaign disclosure statements that candidates routinely file as public notices, and ease public access to information on the city’s website.

Mayor Gene James initiated the conversation, agendizing the matter at the May 3 meeting after reading a report card published by the nonprofit Citizens Take Action. The watchdog group gave the city a D-, largely as a result of there being no monetary limits candidates can receive from individuals or PACs.

The report had also found that information about campaign finances is “not particularly easy to find” on the San Clemente city website, with campaign finance information going back to 2018.

“I was a little upset when I saw it, but then when I looked at it a little more, I really understood the D-,” said James.

Calling the legislatures in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento “cesspools” in relation to the presence of dark money, as well as referencing reported political corruption in Orange County cities such as Anaheim, James addressed a couple priorities on his mind.

“Oh, you went there,” said Councilmember Kathy Ward after James mentioned Anaheim.

While acknowledging the city’s inability to control money coming from political action committees (PACs), James said he wanted to look at being able to search the city website, and that he, personally, struggles to find information there.

“I think we need a website revamp … but specifically as it relates to those 460s that candidates file and being able to search those PDF documents by contributor, by recipient, by amount, by PAC—and let’s bring some transparency to this,” he continued.

James suggested having the city clerk produce a summary of 460s submitted to the office and publish them as public notices in newspapers. He believed such policies would remove money from campaigns and people will get to see from where funding originates.

The mayor finished his opening comments by saying the city should set a campaign contribution limit of $500 per person.

Currently, as a result of Assembly Bill 571, San Clemente adheres to a contribution limit of $4,900 to candidates seeking city or county office per election, between the period of Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2022.

Ward said she liked James’ thoughts on the matter, adding that she would like to see a link available on the city website’s homepage for information about campaign donations.

“I like the limit; I have no issue with that kind of amendment,” she said.

James also suggested they prohibit vendors that contract with the city from donating to local campaigns, and that such a prohibition should be written into the language of future contracts.

City Attorney Scott Smith and City Manager Erik Sund agreed that the enactment of the campaign limit needed to be formally written and brought back to the council for a vote, but Sund said the public notices and adjustments to the website could be implemented easily after the council vote.

“On (the city vendor limit), there’s going to be a little First Amendment snag, but the extra reporting or interim reporting in connection with contracts, there’s an idea about freshening those as you submit a proposal on a contract that you could look at, that wouldn’t limit it, but it would provide disclosure in connection with our FPs and contract awards,” Smith explained.

Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan mentioned that the city could look to the state’s Cal-Access system that provides financial information as a guide. He added that he wasn’t sure they could limit who can contribute to campaigns.

However, Ward pointed out that even if the city could not limit contributions from vendors, the council chiefly desired to disclose any information regarding campaign donations from businesses the city has contracted with to the public.

The next council meeting is scheduled for June 7 at the San Clemente Community Center starting at 5 p.m. The meeting can also be livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.

C. Jayden Smith

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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