By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa clamped down on political robocalls Tuesday with new regulations aimed at making it clearer who is behind the calls and easier for residents to avoid them.
Council members praised the rules as eliminating loopholes that have allowed anonymous, automated phone calls to occur late in recent political races.
“We’re going to be the leader in the state on this,” Councilwoman Julie Combs said.
The council voted on the new rules last week and formally adopted them Tuesday on unanimous votes. They were spurred by concern that inexpensive automated political campaign calls can allow independent groups to be active in local politics but remain anonymous by flying under the campaign disclosure limits.
The new rules require any group that funds more than 200 robocalls within a 30-day period to report the activity, no matter how much the calls cost. They also require people be given the option to opt out of future calls and prohibit “spoofing,” the practice of using a fake number to show up on a recipient’s caller ID screen.
In addition, calls funded by independent expenditure committees must disclose the name of the person who paid for the call, their telephone number and a statement that it was not approved by a candidate or committee controlled by a candidate. Such calls also need to be disclosed to the city clerk’s office within 48 hours of being made and include a transcript of the call.
The rules also provide stiffer fines for violations of other disclosure rules. The fine for failing to properly disclose who funded campaign mailers was increased from $1,000 to $5,000. The new rules give officials some discretion about whether they want to impose the fine, but Councilman Gary Wysocky opposed that provision.
Wysocky said he was the subject of an anonymous campaign robocall during the last election.
“I don’t think there should be any discretion,” Wysocky said last week. “I think they know exactly what they are doing. They are set up that way to attack someone.”
Automated calls slamming Wysocky in 2012 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.
Two campaign finance laws were merged into one and clarified to make it consistent with state law and more understandable by the public. Campaign finance statements must also now be filed electronically, which makes it easier and faster for city staff to make the reports public.
City Clerk Terri Griffin and City Attorney Caroline Fowler were praised for doing the research and outreach necessary to craft new rules that work for Santa Rosa.
The transcript requirement is a bit inconvenient but otherwise the new rules are not terribly difficult to comply with, said veteran campaign consultant Herb Williams.
“There is nothing wrong with full disclosure,” Williams said.
He noted that he’s been using the opt-out function on robocalls for several years. He doesn’t view multiple robocalls from a candidate to be any more annoying than multiple mailers.
“The difference is one robocall costs 1/32 of a piece of mail.”
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum can be reached at 521-5207 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.