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How to rein in contributions

Officials, candidates suggest reforms for campaign spending

Writing that Portland's campaign finance system 'creates the impression that large campaign contributors may have undue influence on the city,' city Commissioner Erik Sten and city Auditor Gary Blackmer two weeks ago proposed that Portland adopt public financing for city campaigns.

Here are their suggestions, as well as others from former candidates, for reform:

Public financing

Sten and Blackmer propose a system that would provide city money to candidates who voluntarily abide by the 'Clean Campaign' system.

City leaders would have to decide thresholds and amounts, Sten said. A possible system would allow candidates to be eligible for $100,000 in public campaign money once they had collected a $5 contribution from 1,000 contributors and had agreed not to raise other money privately.

Candidates who weren't interested in using the system could raise as much money as they wanted, Sten said.

Sten said the system could cost the city less than $1 million a year Ñ less than one-third of 1 percent of the city's discretionary budget.

Some may question the costs, Sten said, but the system would allow candidates to spend more time talking to voters about issues and less time talking to major contributors about money.

'The idea that huge, concentrated funding of political campaigns is free to the taxpayer is the worst disinformation I've heard,' he said.

Conflict of interest recusals

Former City Council candidate Peter Alexander, a member of the Green Party, advocated during his unsuccessful race against Commissioner Dan Saltzman in May that commissioners recuse themselves from voting on issues involving major contributors. Alexander suggested that contributors become 'major' after giving $250 or more to a candidate.

'It takes away the incentive for these folks to be giving this kind of money,' he said of large contributors.

According to Camilla Modesitt, acting director of the New Politics Program for the National Civic League, a similar system worked well in Westminster, Colo. City councilors there were barred from voting on any issue involving someone who contributed $100 or more to their campaign.

'All of the contributions were $99 as soon as that went into effect,' Modesitt said.

Contractor declarations

Former City Council candidate Liz Callison has recommended a system in which the council would need to vote on each specific city contract above a certain amount. Representatives of the company seeking the contract would need to appear before the council to declare the contributions it had made.

'The public has been bamboozled so long É they're under-informed,' Callison said. 'They're complacent.'

Ñ Todd Murphy