23 Aug 2014
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Does Outside Money Corrupt an Election?

A recent report found that more than 40 percent of all contributions to council candidates came from people or companies outside of Petaluma. Is it no big deal or a negative influence on politics?

Does Outside Money Corrupt an Election?

Should it matter that a city council candidate gets his money from someone who doesn’t live in town?

Yes, says Petaluma Tomorrow, a local organization and political action committee that advocates for transparency in government.

“A contribution is an implicit statement that ‘We are on the same page,’” says Greg Reisinger, chairman of the 11-year-old group, which is also a political action committee and endorses candidates. “When someone makes a contribution they expect access, particularly on a local level.”

The organization (which has endorsed Alicia Kae Herries and Jason Davies) has recently put out a report analyzing contributions to the six Petaluma City Council candidates, including how much of the funding comes from what the group describes as “outside interests.”

Read the full report on the right

By Reisinger’s definition, an outside interest is a person who does not live or work in Petaluma or a company that is not based here, yet seeks to influence local politics through their contributions.

As an example, Reisinger cites Basin Street Properties, the real estate developer which owns Theater Square, the Golden Eagle Shopping Center and many other properties around Petaluma and whose headquarters are in Reno (the company has an office in Petaluma).

Another is Ghilotti Brothers, based in San Rafael and whose owner lives in Marin County, but that is a frequent bidder for local road works projects.

“Here is somebody who doesn’t live in Petaluma and doesn’t have a business here, yet wants business here and is consistently contributing money to local candidates to acquire that,” he says. “It’s important to know that a candidate is getting a significant amount of their funding from people who can’t even vote in Petaluma.”

The report found that 41 percent of all campaign contributions came from outside Petaluma and that some candidates’ campaigns were almost completely reliant on outside funds. The maximum an individual can contribute in a city election is $200, which many argue is limiting and forces candidates to seek funding anywhere they can get it.

Gabe Kearney, appointed to council in January 2011 and who is seeking reelection, received 79 percent of all his contributions from people living outside Petaluma, according to the report. Councilman Mike Healy received 67 percent and former Planning Commissioner Kathy Miller 58 percent.

Tiffany Renee also received 57 percent of her contributions from out of town, Alicia Kae Herries 43 percent and Jason Davies 35 percent, the report found.

But not everyone agrees that people living outside of Petaluma is automatically an “outside interest.”

Kathy Miller, in a questionnaire by Occupy Petaluma said that many people living outside the city are impacted by decisions made here, including its roads, available stores and recreational amenities.

(Miller is one of the authors of Measure X, which seeks a parcel tax to fund improvements for local parks and sports fields.)

“I'm glad that I have support from the residents of Petaluma as well as those non-residents who are directly impacted by decisions made by the Petaluma City Council,” Miller told Patch in an email.

“Of course I will be representing the residents of Petaluma if I am elected. However, I'm finding in my discussions with voters who live in Petaluma as well as those people who don't but consider Petaluma to be their town, that they all want the same things - better roads, increased funding for public safety and better recreational facilities.”  

Kearney said that he had supporters not only in Petaluma, but throughout California and the country as a result of years of networking.

“Limiting myself to donations from only within the city limits is prohibitive to my ability to raise funds for my campaign,” he said.

Sound off. Are you concerned about the influence of outside money on local elections? Don’t consider it a big deal? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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