Public financing of elections debated

Staff WriterMay 15, 2008 

  • * The program would be voluntary.

    * Candidates must collect a certain number of qualifying contributions within a certain range of amounts: $5 to $20 must come from Chapel Hill residents registered to vote or eligible to register to vote in Chapel Hill.

    * Council candidates must raise at least $750 from at least 75 contributors; mayoral candidates must raise at least $1,500 from at least 150 contributors.

    * Council candidates may raise no more than $2,250 in qualifying contributions; mayoral candidates may raise no more than $4,500.

    * Council candidates could receive as much as $3,000 in public grant money from the town; mayoral candidates could receive as much as $9,000 in public grant money from the town.

— The debate was tense over whether a publicly financed election would really level the playing field for candidates in municipal contests.

Last summer the N.C. General Assembly approved Chapel Hill to be the state's first municipality to participate in the pilot program in which candidates could receive public money for campaigns, with restrictions and limits on their own fundraising. The proposal is sometimes called "voter-owned elections."

The aim is to help level the playing field among candidates who may not be as wealthy or as well-connected, and to limit campaign spending at the same time. It is meant also to eliminate corruption or the appearance of corruption during elections.

At a public hearing on the proposed program Wednesday, some thought it would also discourage candidates from tying themselves to special interest groups. Some residents wonder whether the town can afford the program, considering the current economic downturn.

The top vote-getter in the last town election -- incumbent Jim Ward -- spent the least amount of money during his campaign. But challenger Matt Czajkowski, who financed his own campaign, spent more money than any other candidate and unseated council incumbent Cam Hill.

Czajkowski -- who calls the proposed program "taxpayer-subsidized campaigns" -- said he doesn't think a publicly financed election would help challengers. He would prefer to see the state Constitution changed to set term limits for elected officials.

Council members Mark Kleinschmidt and Sally Greene argued that the point of requiring a large number of contributors to campaigns ensures that the candidate is viable and has knocked on lots of doors to hear the constituents' concerns. Kleinschmidt said self-financed campaigns prevent that.

Going out into the community draws support and trust from constituents, Kleinschmidt said, adding that people vote for incumbents when they know them personally and are happy with their service on the council. "That's the power of incumbency," he said.

The council plans to vote on whether to implement the publicly financed campaigns program at its meeting June 9. After that, it must submit the program proposal to the State Board of Elections.

meiling.arounnarath@newsobserver.com or (919) 932-2004

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