The Newport Beach City Council will consider a slate of election reform measures before the end of the year that is intended to make lobbying and campaign contributions to local campaigns more transparent, Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill said.
On Monday, the Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Election Reform met to discuss new regulations that would require lobbyists to register with the City Clerk’s Office, establish fines and tighten enforcement on candidates who exceed individual contributions limits,
City Attorney Aaron Harp presented the proposed changes to the Municipal Code and O’Neill led an informal discussion about the proposed rules.
“It would be really nice to know if someone is being paid to talk to me,” O’Neill said. “I think having this is a big first step.”
O’Neil and Councilman Brad Avery serve on the Ad Hoc Committee on Election Reform are up for reelection in November 2020.
Councilman Jeff Herdman is also running for reelection next year and attended Monday’s meeting. In April, he expressed his disappointment with his fellow council members’ decision to not appoint him to the Ad Hoc Committee.
Newport Beach plans to ask the County to join its lobbyist registration database. If the Orange County Board of Supervisors doesn’t sign off on the idea, the city will establish its own system, O’Neill said.
Anaheim and Irvine require an individual or entity who receives compensation of $500 or more in a calendar month for lobbying to register. The Ad Hoc Committee considered pegging that amount at $1,000 but O’Neill said the council should cut it in half after hearing from community members. A lobbyist or lobbying firm would need to register within 10 days of qualifying under this standard.
Former council member Keith Curry recommended that the Council include a provision for performance pay that’s contractually released after an election.
Councilwoman Joy Brenner said fines don’t seem to move the needle when it comes to deterring certain lobbyists’ bad behavior. The suggested fines are $50 for a first violation, $100 for a second violation and $200 for a third violation.
Susan Skinner, a local activist, said these nominal fines are negligible in a city where “people drive cars that [cost] more than my child’s education.”
O’Neill countered by saying Newport Beach voters do care about the optics of a candidate who violates election law or takes money from a lobbyist who violates election law.
The big question that remains is whether the fines or lobbyist registration will change the behavior of controversial political consultant Dave Ellis, who was instrumental in the election of the Team Newport slate to power in 2014.
“It will not bother Dave Ellis to have his name on this [registry,]” O’Neill said. “Frankly, it should probably be called the Dave Ellis Political Lobbying Reform Act.”
Former council candidate Phil Greer expressed serious doubts about the proposed election rules’ effectiveness if the City Council doesn’t direct the City Attorney’s Office to prosecute cases; these cases are currently referred to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer for review.
“You can create whatever you want but if there is no solid enforcement mechanism to do this and if it doesn’t end up where [City Clerk] Leilani [Brown] finds something [and is] giving it to Aaron [Harp] and Aaron saying, ‘I’m going to prosecute or I’m going to have outside counsel prosecute it,’ then this all means nothing,” Greer said.
*Editor’s Note: The story originally incorrectly identified Susan Skinner as president of SPON. We apologize for the mistake.*