"By the way, it's just $1,700," said Vice Mayor Tony Daysog, as he re-entered the Council Chambers this past Tuesday night. "We'll deal with it this week," he added to chuckles from his Council colleagues.

Daysog had had to recuse himself the previous agenda sub-item — leaving the Council Chambers so he wouldn't influence the discussion or take part in the vote — because it concerned candidates for City Council who have not paid in full the amount they signed their names to paying for having a candidate statement published in Alameda election voting guidebooks. Two previous candidates have failed to pay: One was a candidate for Council in 2020. The other was a candidate for Council in 2022: Daysog.

Candidate statement fees

It's somewhat odd that candidates for local office have to pay a fee to have a short statement included in the guidebook provided to voters. That feels like a necessary and inclusive aspect of appearing on the actual ballot — unlike yard signs or mailers that are nice-to-haves. But the candidate statements are marketing materials, just like those yard signs and mailers. Instead of the taxpayers footing the full bill of printing and mailing out these the promotional material of the guidebook, the cost is "recovered" by charging fees to the candidates.

Currently it costs around $4,000 for a candidate to get a statement when running for Alameda's City Council or Mayor. Per the logic of cost recovery, the amount depends on how many different candidates and ballot measures buy statements in the guidebook. The proportion of the total cost covered by each candidate is finalized only after the election is completed.

By that time, some candidates apparently "forget" that they still have a bill to pay.

Alameda's City Clerk did point out that candidates are provided with this information and the full cost estimate when they file papers to run. They are required to sign their name to understanding and committing to the expense.

But the City of Alameda has no policy for what to do when candidates don't follow through on paying.

A Public Records Act request in 2022 disclosed all the emails the City Clerk's office sent trying to get Amos White to finish paying his 2020 candidate statement fee. A further Public Records Act request later in 2022 showed that the past candidate still hadn't paid in full. (Whoever filed those PRA requests knew what they were doing, as they were timed around the filing deadlines for the 2022 Council election.) At this most recent City Council meeting, the City Clerk said that he still had an outstanding balance and was no longer in communication with the city.

Lowering the barrier to run for office

The goal of this agenda sub-item was a good one: To lower this particular barrier to run for office.

The City Clerk's office proposed that in the future, candidates pay a flat fee of $1,000 (with some upfront and some upon completion of the election). The city would assume a larger share of the cost-recovery burden and the candidates would be responsible for a smaller proportion.

That's a positive change. It can hopefully lower the barriers to running for office, invite some more candidates who might not otherwise run, and help them to introduce themselves and make their case to voters.

But where the meeting got sticky was that Councilmember Herrera Spencer proposed that the change from the prior $4,000+/- to the new exact $1,000 be retroactively granted as a pardon to any previous candidate who hadn't paid their bills. So, Daysog had to recuse himself. And while he was gone, Herrera Spencer proposed once again that Daysog and White get special dispensation that no other candidate has received.

An aside on the overall responsibility of "cost recovery"

Councilmembers Herrera Spencer and Daysog have a weird way of budgeting. They're loudly opposed to raising revenues, such as new bond or property tax measures. They're also often opposed to strategic cost sharing on capital projects with partners such as the school district. But when a resident emails in to complain about a fee, they are quick to propose that staff lower that specific user-fee.

Don't get me wrong. I don't like the logic of "cost recovery" — I wish the city had sufficient funding from the state, from local property taxes, and from a balanced mix of other sources to generously subsidize all the programs and services that are worthwhile for residents, community groups, visitors, and local businesses But City Councilmembers take on the responsibility of minding the fiscal health of the city in this current and imperfect world.

If Herrera Spencer and Daysog are going to lower the cost of some user-fees for the user, then they need to identify funds that the city will use to cover more of the fee. This could mean new sources of revenue — like new taxes or bonds — or it could mean cutting other services. Instead, Herrera Spencer and Daysog fiddle with the city's fee schedule, with no apparent regard for the financial consequences.

Moreover, the outcomes of their changes are not equitable. I haven't kept precise count, but over the past ~4 years I believe all of the changes that Herrera Spencer and Daysog have made to user-fees have benefited older residents. I'm all for supporting our seniors — but it's not like Daysog or Herrera Spencer are also giving attention to the fees charged to parents to pay the additional permit fee to have a bouncy house after they've already paid the fee to rent a picnic table at a city park. Nor have Daysog or Herrera Spencer, to my knowledge, asked questions about how user-fees could be adjusted to be more generous toward residents of public housing, toward renters, or to other classes of Alameda resident who might benefit from city services with a slightly more generous amount of subsidy.

Fairness in this situation

Back to this specific situation: A good outcome would be to lower the user-fee for candidate statements, but it's not fair to selectively let future candidates escape their past responsibilities. (It's also playing politics, given the "opposing any and all change" leanings of both Daysog in office and White, at least as I recall his campaign and his debate responses. That's likely what actually interests Herrera Spencer in this situation.)

Councilmember Tracy Jensen was on-point when she asked and confirmed that at least one other candidate in 2022 — Barack D. Obama Shaw, who ran for mayor — had not purchased a candidate statement. In the future, a comparatively unknown candidate like that should have a lower barrier to being featured in the voter guide. (Yes, I believe that is his real name.) However, at the time, he decided that he could not take on that expense. Refunding Daysog because he forgot to pay (or 'cause he wanted to use that money for his run for US Congress?) is unfair to all the candidates who did pay and to the candidates who chose to forgo the expense and the publicity.

Mayor Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilmembers Vella and Jensen agreed on a measure that in the future all candidates would need to have cleared any existing balances for candidates statements with the City Clerk's office should they want to file to run for elected office again. (See correction at bottom)

No one has to run for local elected office. It's an optional activity — with the prize of getting to stay up late at night listening to all this nonsense and having to be fiscally responsible about all the many user-fee in the city's fee schedule (my favorite being the $275 "crab feed additional cleaning fee" when renting the city-owned O'Club at Alameda Point). But more seriously, there's also no need to shame people who tried or failed in the past. (I mention White's name only in reference to his campaign as a would-be public official in 2020, not to him as a private individual today.) If the city can't collect all of its outstanding balances, so be it. In any case, it's good that the city is fine-tuning these policies for the future.

When it came time to vote on the measure — for a more accessible fee in the future, no retroactive forgiveness, and a requirement that future candidates have no outstanding balance — Councilmember Herrera Spencer set aside her previous concerns and joined the other 3 councilmembers on the dais to pass it unanimously. She may be shameless — but unlike Vice Mayor Daysog, she knows how to not look like a loser.

Correction (April 8, 2024): I was wrong about how the new policy treats candidates who have an outstanding balance from previous elections. Mayor Ezzy Ashcraft did propose verbally that candidates in this situation be required to first pay their outstanding balance – but after discussion with other councilmembers, this was not part of the measure. The resolution was adopted by the 4 voting councilmembers as it was originally drafted by the City Clerk's office. This means that any candidate with an outstanding balance may still take out a candidate statement without paying off that balance. However, they are given no flexibility on when to pay the new amount – they must pay the full amount of $1,000 upfront for a candidate statement in the new election.

Lowering the costs of running for public office — responsibly