St. Pete Council makes history, passes ban on PAC money in local elections

And it could have implications in national politics.

click to enlarge St. Pete Council makes history, passes ban on PAC money in local elections
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After a lengthy debate, the St. Petersburg City Council passed a potentially groundbreaking ordinance, one that would limit the influence of PACs and Super PACs in city elections, by a 6-2 margin.

While it won't have any impact on the current mayoral election, the fact that the current contest between former Mayor Rick Baker and current Mayor Rick Kriseman is the most expensive mayoral race in the city's history thanks in part to PACs overflowing with shadowy money, seemed to be the elephant in the room. Both candidates have PACs to aid in their campaign efforts, though Baker's, with help from tens of thousands of dollars from mysterious conservative PACs, dwarves that of Kriseman.

The ordinance passed despite the pleas of City Attorney Joe Patner, who said limiting PAC money in elections is technically against the law, and that it opens up the city to expensive lawsuits.

“Our office is advising you that this ordinance is illegal because it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution under the current state of the law,” he said.

Supporters said they didn't see much likelihood that the city would face a costly lawsuit. But if the city were to be sued, supporters of the ordinance argued, the case could make it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it could potentially overthrow parts of Citizens United, the 2011 decision removing all limits to PAC spending in elections.

After Citizens United, big industries like oil and gas poured money into races across the country in an effort to get (mostly Republican) candidates who would cater to their interests elected. Such spending is starting to balloon in local races now, too.

Some council members said they were petrified of the idea of a utility provider or, as Council Chair Darden Rice put it, “a deep-pocketed developer who wants to build on the waterfront, who can pay for a referendum to get that done" having disproportionately hefty influence on an election's outcome and therefore what policies get made within the city.

Challenging the mechanisms that allow that to potentially happen is worth the potential trouble, she said.

“Sometimes the status quo is wrong,” she said.

The policy will limit PAC spending in a city election to $5,000, which advocates say will level the playing field and ensure no candidate's voice get drowned out.

Councilmen Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari voted against the ordinance.

Kennedy said he didn't do so out of opposition to the spirit of the policy, but out of concern that it opens the city up to a costly lawsuit, which Patner said could cost the city upwards of $2 million — and that the relatively meager $500 fine candidates and PACs would incur is essentially nothing to the monied interests that back them.

“In my heart I want to vote yes, but in my head I know the law...the law isn't always what I want it to be,” Kennedy said. "Bottom line, I don't think it's enforceable and bottom line, I think it exposes our city to too much risk.”

For the bulk of the meeting, it appeared as though there would be a 5-3 margin in favor of the ordinance.

But at the last minute, Councilman Steve Kornell went from a 'no' to a 'yes.'

At first, he said that the $2 million that would be used to fight a lawsuit would be put to better use to housing homeless children or providing some other essential service. But Councilman Charlie Gerdes' passionate argument that it's for the greater good seemed to sway him.

"The danger of where we are and where we're headed is too expensive not to fix," said Councilman Charlie Gerdes.

The influence of PAC money, meanwhile, is only going to grow — and it's not exactly going to help homeless kids, either.

"And a lot of it is coming from people who could care less about homeless children in St. Petersburg," Gerdes said. "It's getting worse every election. Every election is getting more and more obscene. My vote is because I'm not standing for it anymore."

The council's decision followed lengthy public testimony, all of which was in favor of the ordinance.

Many cited Sunday's gun massacre in Las Vegas and the NRA's outsized influence on state and federal gun laws as a clear example of how unlimited spending leads to policies that don't reflect the wants and needs of the public.

“This is a moral and just issue as it protects all people at all income levels, not just the very rich,” said Pastor Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church.

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