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CAMPAIGN FINANCE TARGETED; T.O. MAKING CHANGES TO THORNY ELECTION ISSUE.

Byline: Sonia Giordani Daily News Staff Writer

The citizens who stepped forward to reform the city's campaign finance rules come from different sides of the political playing field.

But they left their political hats at the door - literally - when they sat down to work together.

``At the second meeting, we put a hat rack with two hats outside the door to our meeting room with a sign that said, `Hang your political hats here.' Everybody came walking in with a grin,'' said Dot Engel, a 17-year Thousand Oaks resident who co-chaired the Citizens Blue Ribbon Campaign Finance Reform Committee.

Given less than two months to meet and discuss the city's most compelling problems with financing political campaigns, the 16-member panel had to overcome ideological differences quickly. On Tuesday, they will present the City Council with a draft ordinance - and have recommended immediate approval.

If passed, contributions would be limited to $250 per candidate and residents running for city offices would have to submit expenditure disclosure forms in addition to those required by state law.

But the committee might have given the city more than just new campaign finance regulations. Co-chairman Jim Bruno said it may restore peace and help heal wounds after last fall's divisive recall campaign.

``The political climate in our community will improve if we recognize that at the core of reconciliation and restoration is forgiveness,'' Bruno wrote in a report to the City Council. ``It is in this spirit of hope that we present our work to the council and to the community.''

Round-table diplomacy

For some members, the experience of sitting at a round table with individuals who just months ago were considered political enemies required great diplomatic skills.

The failed recall campaign in November to unseat Councilwoman Elois Zeanah left a deep rift in a city once charmed with a small-town feel. Pitting business-friendly residents against slow-growth activists, the campaign left a tinge of bitterness on all things political.

And with combined spending by the committees in favor and against the recall topping $600,000, it brought attention to the increasing role of money in local elections - something the reform committee members have sought to prevent in future campaigns.

Committee member Claudia Pelletier said she became interested in campaign finance reform when the recall coffers began to grow fatter, fed by the generous contributions of pizza magnate Jill Lederer, who opposed Zeanah, and environmental attorney Edward Masry, who supported Zeanah.

``Toward the end of the whole campaign, I really started to get upset at what was happening with the funding. I just felt it was very unethical,'' Pelletier said.

``And then I just think campaign finance reform is critical to improving our political system. I thought getting it at the local level would be a good place I could start to help,'' she said.

The City Council established the citizens committee in early March to draft a campaign finance ordinance.

With assistance from Los Angeles-based attorney Craig Steele, the committee got to work the following month. The panel has been careful to navigate around potential legal pitfalls that may appear as the courts continue to debate state campaign finance laws.

The city's ordinance, for instance, could not restrict individual candidates from spending their own money on their campaigns - a right protected under the First Amendment. The ordinance also could impose only the ``least restrictive'' cap on contributions - which the committee decided was $250 per candidate.

``The law was not so much to say that we are going to lessen anybody's right to speak in a local election. The law was really to lessen the perception that large political contributions may have the potential to be a corrupting influence - and something that could reduce confidence in the election process,'' Steele said.

He added that like hundreds of cities across the state, Thousand Oaks has confronted campaign finance just as it became an increasingly significant political issue. And rather than waiting for the courts to work out the details of a state law, they are forging ahead with local ordinances tailored to suit their community's needs.

Future work

For committee member John Relle, developing a campaign finance law was the right thing to do, and the proposed ordinance will be a good way to ensure that candidates spend the minimum to seek office.

But he added that the city's work should not stop there in leveling the playing field for candidates - giving new faces in a political race as much exposure as incumbents.

``Ultimately, I think this law will help some people and hurt others,'' he said. ``If a new candidate without a lot of personal money came along and wanted to make an impact, they might have a tougher time getting exposure.''

Like other committee members, Relle said he hopes to see the council and perhaps another citizens committee develop a policy allowing political candidates to use Thousand Oaks public access television for debates, speeches and other political forums.

In fact, in addition to submitting the draft campaign finance ordinance to the council, the committee also will offer four related recommendations. They call for providing free television time to candidates, establishing a campaign ethics commission, considering the direct election of the city's mayor, and term limits for the five council seats.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 5, 1998
Words:875
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