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After supporters testify at Thursday hearing, Commissioner Amanda Fritz wants to bring her proposal back for a vote before the end of the year

A proposal for publicly funded campaigns for the Portland mayor and city council seats received broad support from citizens at a hearing Thursday.

Thirty advocacy groups have endorsed the measure and of the 57 people who came to testify, all but two spoke in favor of publicly funded elections.

But the two people who raised concerns were city auditor Mary Hull Caballero and retired city auditor Gary Blackmer. They cautioned that any system of public financing would require new city staff and rigorous oversight.

The measrue was introduced by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who won office in 2008 using the city’s previous publicly funded election system. Voters ended that program in 2010.

“This issue really, really matters to me,” Fritz said. “The most difficult challenge facing our country today is lack in trust in government.”

Fritz’s proposal, modeled after New York’s publicly funded elections, hinges on what’s known as a small donor multiple match, a system designed to make candidates who successfully raise many small donations more financially competitive. It’s a substantially different model from Portland’s previous attempt at city-funded elections.

Candidates could choose to opt in, and would have to agree to contribution limits and meet requirements to show they were viable.

Candidates for city council would have to raise at least $2,500 from 250 individuals, and candidates for mayor would have to raise $5,000 from at least 500 people. They would also have to agree to cap individual contributions at $250. Candidates would be allowed to receive up to $40,000 of in-kind donations.

In exchange, qualified candidates would have donations of $50 or less matched by the city at a 6 to 1 ratio.

The matching fund would be drawn out of the city’s general fund budget, the same pool of money that funds parks, public safety and other services. Fritz has proposed limiting the public financing program to .2 percent of the general fund, roughly $2 million to $3 million per election cycle.

Oregon is among a handful of states that don’t limit individual political contributions. The state supreme court has ruled contribution limits violate free speech provisions in the state constitution. Portland is also one of relatively few major American cities that elects its council members city-wide as opposed to by geographic districts, further adding to the expense and difficulty of mounting a campaign for a council seat.

“I think in Oregon we have a particularly broken system,” said Diane Rosenbaum, a state senator and former senate majority leader who came to support the measure, and joked during her testimony that she had probably called most of the people in the room and asked them for money.

“I am hopeful that Portland can adopt this system, and that it can become a model for the state of Oregon,” she said.

The measure’s proponents said that amplifying small donations would give elected officials an incentive to spend more of their time engaging with a broad range of potential small donors.

Social worker Meg Bergio described a self-advocacy group she runs, encouraging adults with disabilities to engage with politics. Members of her group can only afford to give $10 to a candidate, she told the city council. But a six to one match could turn 10 of those small donations into $600, enough to get a candidate’s attention.

“We might have elected officials running for office that would want to come and talk to us, at our meeting. We might get to share a little bit about what our lives are and what is important to us,” she said.

The groups that have endorsed the measure include the Urban League, the Latino Network and many more that represent communities of color.

“Only two African- Americans and six women have ever served on the Portland city council” said Joanne Hardesty, who leads the Portland NAACP. She described the proposal as “an opportunity for regular folks to believe that they also have a role in our democracy.”

Auditor Mary Hull Caballero said she supported the programs’ goals, but said Fritz had not secured adequate funding for the management, legal and investigative work necessary to make it succeed.

Hull Caballero also said the city’s elections officer doesn’t have the time to review the “voluminous documents” the program requires. Caballero reminded the city council that the city’s previous attempt at publicly financed elections was brought down in part by a high-profile case of fraud. A woman named Emily Boyles used fake signatures to qualify, and then misspent the $145,000 she received through the program. Boyles was ultimately fined and required to return the money, but it took the city years to collect it.

“For these reasons alone, the city has no room for error in a successor program. It must be tightly managed and closely monitored,” Hull Caballero said.

Commissioner Fritz has said, given the auditor’s concerns, that the program would be overseen by a different city bureau or a public commission.

Fritz has one of the two additional votes she needs to pass the measure. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is supporting it. Hales chose not to seek a second term in office after Ted Wheeler announced his run for mayor. Wheeler ultimately raised more than $850,000 and won the seat during the May primary.

But both commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman signaled that they may be uncomfortable implementing a system similar to one that was recently repealed by voters.

“This council appropriates money for lots of purposes, but this is appropriating funds to fund our own elections,” Fish said.

Commissioner Steve Novick expressed support for the concept, but questioned who would administer it and whether the city could afford to fund it. “I really really hope that we can make this work,” Novick said.

Novick, who is currently running for re-election against challenger Chloe Eudaly, lamented the amount of time he’s spent talking to wealthy donors.

“If you have six months to raise $250,000, even if you can allocate 10 hours a week to raising money, that means you have to raise $1,000 an hour,” he said. “You wind up talking to people who have money.”

Fritz said she intends to amend the proposal, and bring it back to the city council for another hearing and a vote in December.

Oregon Public Broadcasting is a Portland Tribune news partner.

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