Monday, December 26, 2016
[Ventura County] Grand jury calls for greater transparency in campaign finance statements
To help improve political transparency, the Ventura County grand jury is urging seven cities to add local campaign finance data to their websites.According to a report issued this month, the grand jury found that only three cities — Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura — provide information online about who is contributing money to the campaigns of local candidates.
In its final report, issued Dec. 1 and titled “Campaign Contributions Transparency,” the grand jury singled out Simi Valley for having “the most user-friendly format regarding monetary contributions online.”
Getting candidates’ contribution statements in the seven cities that don’t put the information online varies from city to city. Some provide the information in written form, others do so by email, grand jury foreperson Pam Riss said.
In Camarillo, according to the report, residents can get candidates’ campaign finance statements by visiting the city clerk’s office, but the information is not posted on the city’s website.
The situation is the same in Moorpark, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore, the report said.
The grand jury’s investigation, prompted by a complaint that campaign contribution data wasn’t easily accessible, focused on whether the county and its 10 cities were in full compliance with the state’s Political Reform Act of 1974.
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which was established by the 1974 act, requires candidates running for public office to file a form, called Form 460, listing all campaign contributions of $100 or more,
The commission’s rules also require local governments to provide residents with access to records of campaign contributions “in an accurate, timely and transparent manner.”
Nothing in state law, however, requires cities to post the information on municipal websites.
Although the panel’s conclusion was only a recommendation, the report said if all 10 cities in the county offered the same user-friendly access to the records as Simi Valley, residents could easily compare monetary contributions made to the different candidates’ campaigns.
The county elections office website also fell short of the grand jury’s transparency standard.
That website provides access only to finance statements filed electronically by candidates’ campaigns. Statements submitted in written form are not available online, the report found. To get the written reports, residents must visit the county clerk and recorder’s office in Ventura.
While data on electronic filings are available on the county website, the information is not easy to access. It takes 11 steps to reach the webpage containing the information, the report said.
“The searcher must follow seven individual steps before arriving at a page which requires a specific name (last name only) and a filing date. Once the searcher gets to the ‘Summary Page,’ four additional steps are required to get to the page which documents monetary contributions,” the report said.
The website is “overly complicated, not intuitive” and may require help from county staff to navigate.
Although state law doesn’t require cities to post campaign finance records on their websites, Moorpark will comply with the grand jury’s recommendation, City Clerk Maureen Benson said this week.
“We’re happy to comply,” Benson said Monday. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s not required by law, but we’re going to be copying what the city of Simi Valley does on its website. We don’t know if it’ll look exactly like theirs, though.”
Camarillo City Clerk Jeffrie Madland said she planned to present a report on the grand jury’s recommendation to the Camarillo City Council, probably at the council’s meeting in January.
“They’ll make the decision,” she said.
Posting the candidate campaign finance statements on Camarillo’s website would be complicated, Madland predicted.
“You have to redact all this information,” she said. “If you look at Ventura County’s website, you see all these blank lines where addresses and other personal information is redacted.”
December 23, 2016
By Hector Gonzalez