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SLO to explore publicly financed elections 

After a blunt conversation about the merits and misgivings of a proposed public financing election program, the San Luis Obispo City Council cast a tenuous vote to move forward with developing a proposal.

The Integrity in our Elections Ordinance was first pitched to the council in August by Bill Ostrander—director of the nonprofit group Citizen’s Congress and 24th Congressional District candidate—and Michael Latner, a political science professor and director of Cal Poly’s Master in Public Policy program. They say the program would increase candidates’ engagement with voters because they’d rely on a great number of small donations rather than a small group of large, influential donors.

“The vast majority of Americans recognize the corrosive impact of financial power being converted to political power in the political system that we have,” Latner told the council. “Even with San Luis Obispo’s past record of principled campaign regulation, we think the time is now to present an example for other and smaller cities.”

As proposed, the program’s main component includes giving registered voters $20 “democracy vouchers” to contribute to participating candidates. The optional program would limit those participating to only those funds. So far Seattle is the nation’s only city that’s adopted such a program.

The program would require one-time start-up costs, ongoing operational costs, and a fund to cover vouchers for San Luis Obispo’s approximately 25,000 registered voters, likely totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

City Councilmember Dan Rivoire was the first to announce his support for such a program.

“What excites me the most about it—it empowers our electorate, and it empowers our constituents,” he said.

Councilmember John Ashbaugh proffered a lengthy analysis of election financing before giving his conditioned support, and Councilmember Dan Carpenter followed in declaring his clear support.

Councilmember Carlyn Christianson and Mayor Jan Marx were adamantly opposed to the proposal, echoing previously voiced concerns. Christianson said the city doesn’t need the program and that it’s an undue use of funds. 

“I think it’s really nice that people come to our city and say that ‘you’re so progressive, so advanced, so far thinking, here’s another far thinking idea that we want you to promote,” Christianson said. “We as a city—that can’t be our focus of promoting great ideas.”

Marx said she didn’t know if the majority of city voters wanted the program, vehemently urging for a ballot referendum instead of council’s approval.

“I think it’s wrong for the City Council to foist this kind of drastic change in the election system on the people of the city of San Luis Obispo,” Marx said. “If you are really excited about it, draw up the petition, take it to the people, get the signatures, put it on the ballot.”

Those sentiments irked Carpenter and Ashbaugh

“People elected me to lead,” Carpenter said. “This allows more people to participate. That’s what I hear when I have my ear to the ground—more people want to participate and don’t have the opportunity.”

Ashbaugh suggested opposition was motivated by political self-interest.

“Nothing is going to be foisted on the voters. I don’t like that word, I don’t like that tone,” he said.

The discussion turned nerve-wracking for supporters when Ashbaugh wavered, saying he hoped for a stronger consensus and that Marx raised some legitimate questions about public support.

In the end he joined Carpenter and Rivoire to give staff the go-ahead to develop a more in-depth implementation proposal to consider in the future.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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