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Conscience extinguished 

When George Washington was 14, he copied out 110 Rules of Civility considered foundational to the development of personal character. The 110th rule was: "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."

If only our elected leaders today followed the same maxim that guided our first president!

Sadly, that "celestial fire" of conscience seems barely aflutter. Witness a lame duck president refusing to concede to the will of the people, hampering a peaceful transition, and throwing unfounded accusations that cast doubt on our electoral process.

But shouldn't we hope and expect more from our local representatives?

Guess not, given the recent power-grab by SLO County Supervisors Lynn Compton, Debbie Arnold, and John Peschong, who had the gall to set a campaign contribution limit of $25,000 per person in races for 10 elected county offices that include, well, supervisors.

"Person" is defined by federal election campaign law as an individual, but also includes firms, syndicates, corporations, labor unions, political action committee, political parties, and other organizations. In other words, every monied group that hopes to sway an election and influence policy. As The Tribune said, "Three SLO County supervisors just handed special interests—oil companies, developers, the cannabis industry, among others—the opportunity to have even more influence in county elections."

Remember: The more big money machines spend, the less average people are heard. All democracies require an even playing field.

In trying to justify their vote, the three conservative supervisors all implied that they should be applauded for setting any campaign limits. In reality, they're opening the door to colossal influence-peddling by big donors.

It's laughable that they're patting themselves on the back for a cap that is five times greater than the $4,700 cap set by the state Legislature. Unless a local cap was approved by the SLO board, the lower well-intentioned state cap would take effect on Jan. 1.

Like Trump, Peschong, Arnold, and Compton have no conscience when it comes to duly representing the will of the people. Despite our polarizing times, SLO citizens voiced astoundingly unified opposition to the proposal. At least 700 individuals joined the League of Women Voters and other diverse groups in opposing the proposal.

At the board hearing, Supervisor Bruce Gibson recognized the thundering will of the people on this issue. "I hear clearly our community's desire for good government and honest elected leadership," he wrote in The Tribune. At the hearing on Nov. 20, Gibson emphasized that all but one of the 700 calls and emails sent to the board opposed the $25,000 cap.

Who, exactly, are Arnold, Peschong, and Compton representing? The answer: Big Money. Which means: Not you.

Listening to the comments, I was struck by the passion and pleading of SLO's citizenry.

"It's obscene, disgusting," said Carol S.

Carolyn B. asked, "How does this instill confidence in the political process?"

Alex M. said, "This measure will allow big money to influence our small-town campaigns."

Erin P.: "Outrageous! This gives the appearance of corruption and collusion by our supervisors."

Stephen L. said, "I am scared this cap will sell out our board to the highest bidder."

Over and over, citizens said, "No!" "Please no!" "Urging you to vote no!" "Begging a no vote!!"

Arnold, Peschong, and Compton also completely discounted testimony given by fellow elected officials and those who have run for local office. For example:

Tori Keen, candidate for Atascadero City Council: "This ordinance is institutionalized corruption."

Karen Bright, Grover Beach mayor pro tem: "Why on earth would this county need the highest campaign limit in the state?"

Susan Funk, Atascadero City Council: "I know how hard it is to raise campaign money; I see the attraction, but at what cost? This gives a huge advantage to those who have connections to big donors."

Jimmy Paulding, Arroyo Grande City Council, wrote on Facebook: "We must do everything in our power to curb the corrupting influence of money in our politics."

Dawn Ortiz-Legg, newly appointed to fill the board seat left vacant by Adam Hill's death, also spoke against the $25,000 cap. She said, "This looks like a desperate effort to overcome the rule of law."

Our recourse? Vote Peschong, Arnold, and Compton out! Unfortunately, you'll have to wait to do that: Peschong and Arnold don't come up for reelection until March 2024. Compton's seat goes on the ballot in June 2022.

Our other option is to put a citizen-led campaign contribution ordinance on the ballot. I look forward to joining such a battle, even knowing that coteries of big business and the elite will open their bottomless coffers to beat it.

This past election, if anything, proved the power and passion of citizenry. Nationally, millions across the country wrote letters, made phone calls, did everything they could as individuals to act on their faith in our democratic system. Locally, we generated the largest Democratic turnout in SLO County history.

The lesson? All of us have the ability and responsibility to safeguard our democracy. Act now and always on your celestial fire of conscience so that we may keep the torch of democracy burning. Δ

After three years, Amy Hewes is handing this column off to another local progressive. She thanks New Times for the opportunity to share her views, and she is especially grateful to her generous readers. Send comments through the editor atclanham@newtimesslo.com.

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