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  • By Laura Capps

Op-Ed: Why SB County Needs Ethics Reform

(Editor's note: Today Newsmakers presents an opinion piece by SB school board member Laura Capps, who is challenging First District Supervisor Das Williams in the March 3, 2020 election, elaborating on her proposal for local campaign finance and ethics reform, on which we've previously reported.

We've asked Supervisor Williams for an equivalent piece on the issue, which we'll publish in coming days).

On Nov. 6, I released a well-researched campaign finance reform proposal for our County to improve accountability and ensure all voices are heard.

It’s a five-point plan that: 1) sets new campaign contribution limits (because we have none); 2) bans contributions from anyone with business before the Board (such as the oil and cannabis industries); 3) limits candidate spending; 4) establishes an independent ethics commission and; 5) requires more transparency in contribution reporting.

The proposal is based on what many other counties, our state and federal government have implemented – with provisions that have long been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Shockingly, reforms that most agree would be a welcome change for our County received a heated response from my opponent.

His reaction only confirmed my assumptions that the need for this kind of reform is urgent and reveal for all to see the pay-to-play system -- or at least the perception of one - that he is defending.

Supervisor Das Williams, for instance, accepted $62,000 from cannabis interests at the same time he was writing the cannabis ordinance and later while the County was reviewing permits from these same cannabis growers.

A recent Los Angeles Times front page story detailed a fundraiser he held last March in which he received $32,500 from those seeking cannabis permits from the County.

Yet rather than acknowledging at least the perception of impropriety, Williams blasted my campaign finance plan, telling the Santa Barbara Independent that it would “prohibit anyone who ever needs anything from the board from participating in politics.”

Think about this. The impression this statement gives is that the only way people can work with their Supervisors is by paying up. That’s depressingly cynical. After reading his comments, a friend reached out to me with a simple question: “Do you have to pay to get a meeting with the Board of Supervisors?”

I honor and respect the service of all of our public safety workers and first responders in the county. They put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. As Supervisor, I look forward to supporting and working with those who represent working men and women – not in exchange for ANYTHING, but because of the vital services they provide to every aspect of our community.

I believe public safety workers should get the support they need regardless of the money they give, not because of it. In fact, I want to limit political contributions so that the perception of influence is diminished and trust in our system can be stronger.

Yet Williams criticized my plan for “being against our firefighters and public safety officers.” How so? Does he really mean that the only way firefighters and public employee unions can be a part of government is by donating to Supervisors? Shouldn't our County leaders support them because of the invaluable service they provide rather than their ability to fund campaigns?

I would hope so. On the school board, I have proudly advocated and voted for pay increases each and every year for teachers and staff. Their ability to donate to my campaign has never crossed my mind as being relevant to the votes I made. And as Supervisor, that’s the kind of leader I will continue to be.

The admission of the kind of pay-to-play system -- or at least the appearance of one - that my opponent is defending makes me wonder about its far-reaching ramifications.

For example, Santa Barbara County has the second highest poverty rate in the state. Those who advocate for the poor and homeless don’t usually have the ability to contribute to campaigns. How will their voices be heard in a system where advocacy is, according to my opponent, contingent on political influence?

Our local lawmakers make decisions each and every day that impact our quality of life. It’s time for those policies to be made on the merits, not on political influence.

And as Supervisor, that’s the kind of trustworthy leader I will be – one who listens to everyone. Our County and those relying on the services it provides deserve nothing less.

(Disclosure: Prior to announcing her candidacy for supervisor, Capps was a regular panelist on Newsmakers TV).

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