Cupertino council passes voluntary campaign spending limits

The Cupertino City Council unanimously passed a voluntary campaign expenditure limit Tuesday night. Oddly, none of the councilmembers seemed inclined to support the measure up until the vote was called.

Under the resolution, candidates for the November 2020 election who volunteer to spend less than $30,000 will receive a ballot designation.

That amount is higher than the $29,000 limit set for the 2018 election. City Clerk Kirsten Squarcia said the increase is due to more registered voters residing in Cupertino and an increase in the consumer price index.

An ineffective system

Councilmember Liang Chao pulled the item from the consent agenda, questioning the usefulness of the spending limit.

“I’m not sure what the point of setting a limit of individual candidates to raise campaign funds from other grassroots candidates when there is no limit on independent expenditures either for or against candidates,” Chao said.

Under current law, political action committees (PACs) can receive unlimited contributions and can make unlimited expenditures. The expenditures can support or oppose a candidate or a cause, but cannot coordinate activities with candidates.

Councilmember Rod Sinks expressed his concern for the voluntary limit, which could encourage the formation of PACs. Because PACs are not required to disclose individual donors, they are less transparent than contributions to individual candidates.

“What we have here is a system that is very ineffective,” Sinks said.

An off-agenda discussion

Further discussion of the item led Councilmember Jon Willey to delve into an alternative idea, potentially breaking protocol. Willey discussed his idea to have a city website that listed expenditures by a candidate or independent group. Willey’s idea would also have identifiers for what side of an issue or candidate the group falls on.

After further discussion of Willey’s idea by Councilmember Darcy Paul, Mayor Steven Scharf noted that Willey’s idea was not the item up for consideration. Generally, items not listed on the agenda are not supposed to be discussed at length during council meetings.

The City Clerk noted that there were approximately 30 independent groups who spent funds in the 2018 election. She raised concerns about how much staff time would be required to fulfill Councilmember Willey’s proposed idea.

Passing a resolution no one seemed to support

For a moment it seemed that the council would move on without passing the contribution limit, with the Mayor noting the lack of consensus for the item.

In the end, however, the voluntary spending limit did come for a vote, passing unanimously.

Mayor Scharf spelled out the irony of the situation, following the 5-0 vote.

“That’s great,” Scharf said. “I thought everyone was against it, but that’s fine”

To read the resolution, click here. To read background on the resolution, click here.