By Collin Breaux, Breeana Greenberg and C. Jayden Smith
How transparent are Orange County’s cities when it comes to publishing election finance information?
That’s what one watchdog group has tried to answer with its recently released report that examines each city government’s rules and public accessibility when it comes to campaign spending on local candidates.
Citizens Take Action, which describes itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports more civic engagement and robust government action, put out the new report card, which graded each municipality based on whether there are caps on candidate finances and how easily people can review the money behind elections.
In particular, the recent look at campaign finance spending in municipal elections was done to assess “the safeguards in place to protect city governments from undue influence by special interests, including contractors or developers seeking to do business in or with a city,” the organization said in a news release.
Citizens Take Action founder David Burke elaborated further on the research in emailed responses to questions from San Clemente Times about the report and its findings.
Burke said that beginning in the summer of 2021, he and a team of interns found and read every ordinance passed by a city in Orange County pertaining to campaign finance laws or the reporting of campaign finance data.
The research team also looked at every city’s official website to determine whether campaign finance data was present, how many years of data were available, and how easy it was to find the information from the home page.
“We defined ‘easy’ as in how easy is it for a member of the public to find the campaign finance data on their local elected officials and candidates through the city’s official website,” Burke said. “Cities that scored high on ease of access have an intuitive process by which visitors can find campaign finance data in two or three links and a couple of minutes.”
The tri-city municipalities of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano received varying grades. Whether the cities placed limits on the contributions that candidates could receive from individuals and political action committees (PACs), as well as the availability of information on candidates’ campaign contributions, were factors in those grades.
Dana Point received the highest grade of the three towns, with a B-. San Juan Capistrano was in the middle range with a C+. San Clemente scored the lowest with a D-.
The report said Dana Point has a “strong” $810 limit on campaign contributions by individuals, but it has no limits on contributions or “unique prohibitions” or limits on campaign contributions from prospective city contractors.
“Dana Point received a perfect score—30 out of 30 possible points for the transparency of campaign finance data,” the report said. “The information on candidates’ campaign contributions and expenditures is easy to find on the city’s website. The data also goes back to 2004, which covers every sitting elected official, as well as many former officials.”
Burke said there is a link from Dana Point’s homepage titled Fair Political Practices Reporting that “leads visitors to a wealth of information about candidates’ campaign finance data, which is part of why the city received high marks for transparency.”
“On the other hand, in some cities, the candidates’ campaign finance data could only be accessed through a search for a specific form, which many voters would not likely be familiar with, or had links that simply did not work,” Burke continued. “Those cities received low scores for ease of access.”
In response to Citizens Take Action’s findings, Dana Point City Clerk Shayna Sharke said the report shows the city “is committed to maintaining a transparent elections process by providing easily accessible information to the public online.”
“Committee Campaign Financial Statements, required by the Fair Political Practices Commission, are hosted under the City Clerk’s department page on danapoint.org and on file in the City Clerk’s Office,” Sharke said.
As for neighboring San Juan Capistrano, the report said the city has a $580 limit on individual contributions but also no limit on PAC contributions, unique prohibitions or limits on campaign contributions by prospective city contractors—or on developers seeking approval from local officials.
“The $580 limit on individuals does offer some protection against prospective contractors or developers using campaign contributions to curry favor with elected officials,” the report said. “However, the absence of any limit on PACs makes local elections and government vulnerable to undue influence from large donors.”
In terms of transparency on candidate finance data, San Juan scored 20 out of 30 points because such information was said to be “relatively” easy to find on the city website but only went back to 2020.
In an emailed statement, San Juan Capistrano City Manager Ben Siegel said city staff hasn’t had the opportunity to review the report’s findings or methodology in detail, as of this posting.
“The City of San Juan Capistrano complies with all state and federal campaign financial disclosure posting requirements. Campaign disclosure forms are available for review on the city’s website and by contacting the City Clerk’s office,” Siegel said. “We will review the recommendations in the author’s report, and any expansion of the city’s campaign finance restrictions beyond legal requirements would be at the discretion of the City Council.”
In San Clemente, the low D- score was attributed to numerous factors—including there being no monetary limits on contributions from individuals or PACs.
“San Clemente also does not have any prohibitions or limits on campaign contributions by prospective city contractors, or on developers seeking approval from local officials,” the report said. “Nor is there a limited fundraising window during which candidates can raise money.”
The report also said information about campaign finances is “not particularly easy to find” on the San Clemente city website. Campaign finance information goes back to 2018.
The San Clemente City Clerk’s office referred inquiries related to the report to the city manager’s office. As of this posting, city management had not responded to a request seeking comment.
San Clemente Councilmember Kathy Ward was first elected to the dais in 2014 and was reelected in 2018. Citing her own experience running for office the first time around compared to her reelection campaign, Ward said San Clemente has seen large PACs come to town, spending money on mailers smearing candidates.
“Recent elections saw almost weekly mailers sent to households that touted how corrupt city officials are and unfounded allegations the city was almost bankrupt,” Ward said in an email. “There is a difference in the climate since I first ran for office.”
She added that she wasn’t aware donations from PACs could be limited, further explaining her belief that San Clemente “doesn’t have these restrictions because there was no large PACs in our elections until the last (four) elections.”
“They simply were not part of San Clemente elections, but I can tell you they are here now,” she said.
Ward also applauded the nonprofit’s report, which she acknowledged was timely, given it’s an election year.
“Contribution or spending limits would minimize the special interest attacks on local representation and protect local residents’ interests,” she said.
General recommendations from the nonprofit include enacting campaign contribution limits of $1,000 or less on individuals, instituting a limit of $2,000 or less for PACs, and establishing a prohibition or campaign contribution limits of $500 or less on city contractors or developers before potential involvement with a municipality.
Citizens Take Action noted that most cities throughout Orange County received low marks in the report, with more than half graded as a D or worse. Lake Forest, in particular, scored a D, while Mission Viejo was rated an F.
“Only 44 percent of cities in Orange County have enacted campaign contribution limits on individuals. And only one city—Santa Ana—has enacted a campaign contribution limit on Political Action Committees,” the nonprofit said. “The widespread absence of such limits makes cities vulnerable to undue influence from wealthy individuals, businesses, and labor unions.”
Citizens Take Action wanted to focus on municipal campaign finance laws and transparency, because campaign contributions of “even a few thousand dollars” can have an “outsized influence” on local elections, which tend to be less expensive than state or federal elections, Burke said.
“Because there is no centralized resource for municipal campaign finance disclosures in California like there is for state or federal elections, it is important to highlight cities that make the information readily available versus those that do not,” Burke said.
“Though state and federal elections get more media attention, municipal government makes a huge impact on our day-to-day lives,” he continued. “Things like new housing developments in our neighborhood, traffic safety, or how much we pay for trash pickup are all determined in large part by the municipal government.”
Based on the research done for the report, Burke recommended that residents who want to “find the money behind your city’s elected officials and candidates” can start by looking at candidates’ FPPC Form 460s—which has a record of their campaign contributions and expenditures.
Those forms can usually be found on a city’s website, either under a link for campaign finance disclosures or somewhere through the city clerk’s page, Burke said.
“Unfortunately, some cities do not post the 460 forms online or only post them for the current election cycle. In that case, calling or emailing the city clerk and requesting the 460, 496, and 497 forms from recent elections is your best bet,” Burke said. “As dull as it may sound, looking at campaign finance data can be eye-opening.”
“You may see that one candidate is funded largely by real estate developers and Political Action Committees, while another relies primarily on small donations from individuals,” he continued. “Many candidates also self-fund their entire campaign. If you want to learn more about who your elected officials really are, look at the money behind their campaign.”
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at email@example.com
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.