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Originally published Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 4:22 PM

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Democracy strengthened by limiting money's role in local elections

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien supports limiting campaign funds incumbents can roll over from one campaign to the next and shortening the period candidates can raise funds. The changes are being considered by the city Ethics and Elections Commission.

Special to The Times

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission

THE COMMISSION MEETS to discuss proposed changes to campaign fundraising rules Wednesday at 4 p.m., in the Seattle Municipal Tower, room 1600, 700 Fifth Ave.
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ACROSS Seattle, the physical fabric of our city is changing. A wave of construction is bringing housing and jobs to Pioneer Square and South Lake Union. Light rail is expanding to the north. Work to remove the viaduct and reclaim Seattle's waterfront is under way.

But it takes more than new buildings and an improved infrastructure to build a great city for the future. We also need strong political institutions.

There is no more powerful expression of this idea than the moment when an average citizen — a schoolteacher, a business owner, a stay-at-home parent — looks at what's going on in his or her local community and decides to run for public office.

This opportunity to work to make our communities better is the real impetus for change in this country. Unfortunately, this right is threatened by the overwhelming role that money plays in elections.

Wednesday, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has an opportunity to consider two issues that would strengthen our local democracy: limiting campaign funds that incumbents can roll over from one campaign to the next and shortening the period candidates can fundraise.

From super PACs to Citizens United, we all see how money distorts politics at the national level.

What's less obvious is how it affects our local political process.

Imagine that you're an active citizen who is unhappy about how the issues you care about are being addressed by the Seattle City Council. Would you run for office?

I did. But most people look at what is required and decide that the cost is too high.

Increasingly, winning an election means courting those who can donate the most. In 2011, winners of Seattle City Council races raised an average of $270,000, more than double the average from 2001. And since 2001, the average individual contribution has nearly doubled to an all-time high of $223, while small donations under $100 have fallen from 64 percent of contributions to a record low of 32 percent.

People who don't have access to big donations feel like they don't have an opportunity to run for office.

We can strengthen our local democratic institutions by reducing the role that money plays in local elections.

Under current law, money left over from one election can be saved for the next. And you can begin to solicit contributions more than three years before the next election.

In April, Seattle Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Sally Clark and I sent a letter to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission asking them for their evaluation of whether a change in these laws would improve our elections system. They meet to discuss the letter Wednesday.

The two-part idea described in the letter is to limit the surplus campaign funds incumbents can carry over from one campaign to the next to $5,000. It would also shorten the time candidates can solicit and accept campaign contributions, with fundraising not permitted before Jan. 1 of the same election year.

Our city is strengthened when we make it a better place to live and work by improving the physical infrastructure. Our democracy is strengthened when qualified candidates can compete in an election based on the merits of their ideas and not just the amount of money they have in the bank before a campaign even begins.

Our city is better served when I am challenged by smart, committed women and men who believe they can make a difference. If we take these steps to limit the role of money in local elections, we'll help protect the most basic right of our democratic system — the right to make your community stronger by running for public office.

Mike O'Brien is a member of the Seattle City Council. He lives in Fremont with his wife and two children.

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