St. Petersburg’s City Council took a step toward enacting far-reaching campaign finance reform, which could go well beyond what any other U.S. city has done before.
On a 4-3 vote, council members supported a proposal that would require corporations that spend more than $5,000 in city elections to certify they are not entirely or partly owned by foreign interests above certain thresholds.
The measure also would put a $5,000 limit on individual contributions to Super PACs that spend money on city elections. It would, in effect, abolish super PAC spending in the city.
They also voted on an amendment to have staff work on an ordinance that would add additional language regarding disclosure issues, as well as on enforcement methods.
Council members Ed Montanari, Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell opposed the measure.
Thursday’s vote was nonbinding because it was under their role as the Committee as The Whole. The proposal will now go before the full council next month. That’s despite the lack of support coming from the city’s legal team, who said it was flat-out unconstitutional.
In 2014, the Council passed a resolution declaring that, contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United, money is not speech, and corporations are not people.
But Karen Lieberman of American Promise and Awake Pinellas told the council: “A resolution is a nice thing to do, but an ordinance has teeth … it has power … it can cause change.”
“St. Pete prides itself on being the first on so many issues, why can’t we be the first on this?” she asked.
“Foreign influence in our elections is a real phenomenon, including in Florida,” said John C. Bonifaz, the president and co-founder of Free Speech for People, a national group advocating for campaign finance reform. “Outside spending by super PACS is also a phenomenon that has already arrived in St Petersburg.”
“They know this is unconstitutional, but they’re using this to start a lawsuit,” warned St. Petersburg City Attorney Joseph Patner.” They have shopped this ordinance around cities around the country,” he said of Bonifaz’s group, adding, “there’s a reason that they can’t get another city to pass this.”
The ordinance would not stop a penny from entering a local election, Patner said, and that it would be difficult to enforce.
“Passing this is all risk, in our opinion, with no benefit,” he added.
Bonifaz cited letters by constitutional scholars like Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe who disagree and say that the measure was constitutional. He admitted though that those opponents of campaign finance reform would likely mount a court challenge to the ordinance. Free Speech For People has offered to help defend the ordinance in court on a pro bono basis, he said.
“Washington is lost,” he said.
Councilman Charlie Gerdes said Patner made a compelling and persuasive case that passing the ordinance could be interpreted as being unconstitutional, but “just because something is constitutional doesn’t mean that it isn’t reprehensible. Money in politics is obscene.”
The idea of voting to approve a measure that the city’s legal team called unconstitutional was “extremely troubling” to Montanari, who worried if city employees would be legally liable in a potential lawsuit.
Councilman Kornell said he agreed with the ultimate goal of the proposal, but thought the liability of the city prevented him from supporting it.
Before the meeting, at a news conference by supporters of the ordinance, Mayor Rick Kriseman appeared, saying if the Council passed the measure, he would not veto it.
Councilman Kennedy said that moving forward, he’d prefer that the Kriseman administration clarifies his position on the issue, considering that his legal team was recommending against it.