Public campaign financing on council agenda

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, September 21, 2013

JANESVILLE--Janesville City Councilman Sam Liebert wants to make public campaign financing available for city council candidates, saying the increase in campaign spending by council candidates borders on dramatic.

Liebert might be trying to solve a problem he helped create. In his 2011 campaign, he spent $6,090, the second-most of any candidate in the last three years.

Liebert and Councilman Jim Farrell put the topic on for discussion at Monday's council meeting. No action will be taken.

Liebert's spending and DuWayne Severson's 2012 campaign costing $7,773 skew the averages—16 of 22 candidates in the last three years spent less than $1,000.

Liebert suggests a formula that would require those who want public money to first collect $5 donations from 100 people. That would trigger $500 in matching public money.

Each $500 raised by a candidate from $5 donations would be matched with $500 in public money, but no candidate could receive more than $1,000 in public money.

Accepting the public money would limit a candidate's spending to the $5 donations plus the public match.

Participation in the public funding program would be optional, Liebert said.

Rising campaign costs are “kind of a national trend,” Liebert said.

“It's actually started to creep into local politics,” he said. “This is a good way to help level the playing field so ordinary citizens can run for office.”

City Clerk Jean Wulf provided city council campaign spending totals for the last three years:

-- In 2010, five candidates ran and none spent more than $1,000. Candidates who spend less than $1,000 are not required to file records with the clerk.

-- In 2011, eight people ran. Deb Dongarra-Adams spent $1,913, and Sam Liebert spent $6,097. The remaining candidates spent less than $1,000 each.

-- In 2012, nine candidates ran. DuWayne Severson spent $7,773, Matt Kealy spent $2,697, Angela Smillie spent $1,487, and Jim Farrell spent $1,914. The remaining candidates spent less than $1,000 each.

Wisconsin campaign finance statutes do not cap total contributions to city council candidates, but a population-based formula caps the amount a single individual or political action committee can donate, Wulf said. That's about $450 for a PAC and $600 for an individual.

Challengers typically spend more money than incumbents because some items, such as signs, are a one-time expense, Wulf said.

Liebert asked Assistant City Attorney Tim Wellnitz to research the issue and write a sample ordinance. Wellnitz could not find another community in Wisconsin that provides public campaign financing.

Liebert said he wished he hadn't had to spend the money he did in 2012, but he thought it was necessary to get out his message.

“Not everyone is that connected or that well off,” he said.

Under his formula, Liebert said, requiring $5 contributions from such a large number of people would guarantee nobody is beholden to special interests or at least avoid such a perception.

“I think, if everyone decided to opt in, it would level the playing field, and it would be more about candidates focusing on people's needs rather than showing up at fundraising events," he said.

“I probably spent half of my time calling friends and family ... rather than spend that time knocking on doors and showing up at the senior center," he said.

Public campaign financing and the requirement to court so many residents for small donations would help remove the burden of, “Who do I owe a debt to? Who helped me get here?” he said.

“It would make people think twice about who they really represent on the council,” Liebert said.

Farrell co-sponsored the item to place it on the Monday agenda. He said he believes campaign financing and expense are valid discussions.

He doesn't think Liebert's suggestion is feasible and believes public financing would be “very tricky” and controversial. He said he is more inclined to set a cap on spending.

Farrell did not take any contributions in 2012 other than a $30 unsolicited check sent to him in the mail.

“I didn't want to spend my time fundraising and asking people for donations,” Farrell said. “I wanted to learn about the issues and spend my time doing other things.”

He said he also didn't want to be “beholden” to anyone.

“I did have a couple of people who offered to make contributions, but, frankly, I felt they might expect consideration on some things,” he said.

He was surprised to learn Liebert spent so much on his own campaign, especially because he is championing a “level playing field” and called it “kind of ironic.”

“That's like calling the kettle black,” he said.

This story was updated Oct. 1, 2013, to reflect the following correction:


Due to a reporter’s error, a statement about a regulation Councilman Sam Liebert included in his proposal to create public campaign financing in Janesville was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.

Liebert proposed that candidates be required to maintain a paper trail for each individual $5 donation to ensure the donor was from Wisconsin.

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