By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is working to update its campaign finance rules to help the public better understand who’s behind those pesky political robocalls.
The City Council this week considered changes to local campaign finance rules to boost the transparency surrounding recorded calls from political candidates and committees.
Most of the amendments drafted by City Clerk Terri Griffin and City Attorney Caroline Fowler aim to ensure city’s rules align with changes in state law, and to make local rules easier for candidates to understand.
But other changes seek to tighten the reporting requirements for robocalls to ensure elections cannot be influenced by anonymous groups taking out inexpensive calls for or against candidates.
The concern is that such calls can be purchased so inexpensively that those behind them never have to publicly report their activities under existing rules.
“Since robocalls are so cheap, it’s very easy to make a high number of calls and still come under $500,” Griffin told the council last week.
Groups known as independent expenditure committees that spend less than $500 on political activities in Santa Rosa don’t need to report how much they raised for or against candidates or how they spent the money. That’s a lower threshold than the state’s $1,000 limit.
Councilman Gary Wysocky said he was “the subject of a particularly vicious campaign robocall” done anonymously during the last election, and he supported stricter regulation of the practice.
In his case, a series of calls just days before the election slammed his record. The automated calls claimed to be from the “Anybody But Wysocky Committee,” but no such committee ever filed state or local paperwork and those behind the calls have never been identified.
The situation was similar to the calls anonymously attacking Cotati-Rohnert Park School Board veteran Karyn Pulley. In that case, a group called “Parents For Better Schools” never filed campaign disclosure forms because less than $1,000 was spent, according to campaign consultant Herb Williams, who arranged the calls for the group.
Both episodes spurred calls for tightening the rules for reporting robocall activity.
The new language proposes to redefine “campaign communication” as 200 or more similar pieces of campaign literature, posters, signs, ads, or live or recorded phone calls in a calendar month.
The new definition is important because it clarifies that robocalls are covered by the city’s rules, Griffin said. The council made it clear last week that it wants robocalls covered by new regulations whether the $500 limit is reached or not.
When robocalls exceed 200 per month, the new rules would require disclosure of who is paying for them, as well as filing a script of the calls within 48 hours of when they are made, Griffin said.
The rules would require robocalls, like all other campaign communications, to contain the words “Paid for by” and the name, street address and phone number of the person funding them, or in the case of a committee, the name of at least one principal officer.
But some question whether that will work.
“I think trying to say all that in a robocall is way too onerous,” said political consultant Terry Price.
The council also supported stiffer fines for violations. The draft rules initially suggested $1,000 fines, but Councilwoman Julie Combs proposed increasing that to $5,000. She reasoned that the lower figure might not be high enough do deter mischief when campaign mailers can cost $20,000 or more.
Mayor Scott Bartley expressed concern that clamping down too hard on robocalls or jacking up huge fines ran counter to the oft expressed concern that running for city office is too expensive for average folks.
He noted that robocalls, while annoying, are effective and keep campaign expenses down. A $5,000 fine could easily “bankrupt a candidate,” he said.
“I just think the message we’re sending is a little mixed,” Bartley said.
Griffin and Fowler, both of whom were praised by the council for their work on the complex subject, will work on draft language addressing the council’s concerns and will submit it to the state campaign finance officials for feedback before it returns to the council for adoption.
Fowler said she would investigate further whether additional restrictions supported by some council members — such as requiring calls give people a way to opt out and requiring real phone numbers be displayed on caller ID — conflicted with federal telecommunications law.
Another significant change in the new rules is the requirement that candidates file their campaign disclosures electronically. Currently, the clerk’s office has to accept paper filings, redact certain information, scan them, and post them to the city’s website, sometimes within 24 hours of receipt.
Electronic filing of the reports would streamline that process, making the statements immediately available to the public online, reduce filing errors, and save paper, Griffin said.
“I’m real excited about it. I can’t tell you how much time it’s going to save us in the clerk’s office,” Griffin said.
The software system, called NetFile, is already in place and some candidates have used it to file campaign finance reports electronically, Griffin said. A key feature of the software is that allows data to be exported to spreadsheets, making it easier for candidates and the public to track donations and expenditures, she said.
“It’s pretty slick,” Griffin said.
One change the council opted not to support was the expansion of the late contribution reporting period. Currently, a donation is only considered “late” if it $100 to $500 and is received by a candidate within 16 days of the election. Such contributions have to be reported within 24 hours, a greater level of transparency than required during the rest of the campaign period.
The 2013 Political Reform Act changed the state’s 16-day timeframe to 90 days, and the city sought consistency with that change. But Griffin said she thought it would be burdensome for candidates, or their treasurers, to have to report virtually all of their contributions daily for three months.
To lessen the burden on candidates, she proposed only requiring donations of $500, the maximum allowable, be reported within 24 hours. Council members worried that donors would reduce contributions to $499 to avoid reporting requirements, and ultimately decided to leave the existing late reporting requirements as they are.
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater)