Our Views: Janesville City Council wise to shun public financing for election races

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Janesville Councilman Sam Liebert's proposal to help finance campaigns for city council with taxpayer dollars was a solution in search of a problem.

After the council discussed the idea Monday, Liebert stood as the lone supporter. The council tabled the discussion until after the April 2014 election. It's just as well.

It's not that the idea wasn't worth considering. It was ironic, however, that campaign reports for the past three council races exposed Liebert as the second-biggest spender. Even fellow Councilman Jim Farrell noted that. Farrell, however, earns applause for teaming up with Liebert to place the topic on Monday's agenda, even though he disagreed with the idea.

Liebert poured $6,090 into his 2011 election. Only Councilman DuWayne Severson spent more—$7,773 in 2012. In the past three years, 16 of the 22 candidates spent less than $1,000, The Gazette reported Monday.

That shows money is not a big factor in council and school board elections. In this era of growing special-interest investments and influence in state and federal politics, most Janesville residents likely would favor keeping big money out of local races.

On Monday, Liebert said public financing could help “level the playing field” so that an average resident could compete with the wealthy or well-connected. He reasoned that it would let candidates focus on all residents rather than just those with money and that it would help erase the perception that big donors influence government. He said he had to spend campaign money to gain name recognition because his family hasn't been in town for generations.

Fair enough, but even Liebert's idea for a public financing formula seemed impractical. He proposed that a candidate first collect $5 donations from 100 people to get $500 in matching public dollars. That approach seems like more trouble than it would be worth.

Douglas Marklein's response to Liebert's idea was spot on. Yes, the Marklein family is a longtime Janesville home builder, and that afforded him name recognition that probably helped him get elected in 2013 while campaigning on less than $1,000. Yet he suggested the best way to get elected is to “pay your dues.” Marklein did so through years of dedicated service to the city's plan commission.

Marklein also said residents can gain experience, recognition and grass-roots support by volunteering for organizations and attending council meetings. Council candidates, he pointed out, shouldn't find it hard to attend forums, visit coffee shops and restaurants and campaign door to door without spending vast sums.

The city council is nonpartisan and should stay that way, Marklein said, adding: “Shame to anyone who brings politics into this.” Finally, he noted, council members are stewards of taxpayer money and would be wise to demonstrate they're up to this task by showing fiscal restraint in their campaigns.

Amen to all that.

This editorial was revised Sept. 26, 2013, to reflect the following correction:


An earlier version of this editorial misstated the year Douglas Marklein was elected to the Janesville City Council.

He was elected in 2013.

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