The city of San Diego and its lawyers are scrambling to respond to yesterday’s bombshell court ruling on the city’s campaign finance laws.

The city is considering three options: a U.S. Supreme Court appeal, speeding up new campaign finance laws already in the works and requiring new disclosure rules, said Dick Semerdjian, the city’s outside legal counsel.

Yesterday’s ruling effectively allows political parties to make unlimited donations to City Council candidates before the June 8 primary election. The ruling means the city’s rules are the exact opposite of a prior ban on party contributions.

San Diego’s strict campaign finance rules, both on parties and other organizations, were designed to limit influence. The city limits individual donations at $500 per person per election. But parties don’t have such limits. Now, someone could give a party $5,000, for example, and the party could then funnel that amount to a candidate.

The ruling created a window for unlimited party donations at a critical time. City Council has enacted a $1,000 limit on party contributions, but that law won’t take effect until mid-June, or after the election.

Between now and then there are no rules.

“It is just mindboggling,” Semerdjian said.

The city is trying to create some. Semerdjian said his lawyers were drafting Supreme Court briefs in anticipation of a city appeal that could stop unlimited party contributions before the election. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office, Semerdjian said, is researching if the city could institute its $1,000 limit quicker than its current schedule.

Also, the city’s Ethics Commission, which enforces the city’s campaign finance laws, is researching an opinion that would require parties to conform to the city’s $500 individual contribution limits. For instance, if a party donated $5,000 to a campaign it would need to identify 10 people who donated $500 to the party to make that contribution.

“The city is not in the business of having candidates bought by political parties,” Semerdjian said.

The local Republican Party, which was part of a coalition that filed the original lawsuit, is taking advantage of the unlimited donation window. The party’s chairman said Republicans would donate $20,000 to Lorie Zapf, a candidate in the District 6 election. The amount would help her close the fundraising gap between Zapf and the campaign’s money leader, former Democratic state Assemblyman Howard Wayne.

Local Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric said the city was engaged in a “witch hunt” against political parties. The party has argued contributions are a First Amendment issue.

“It seems to me rather amazing that the city keeps getting told its regulations are too onerous and they just don’t seem to be getting the message,” Krvaric said.

Krvaric said the city’s potential response did not affect plans to donate to Zapf. But he declined to say when he would make the contribution, calling it “internal strategy.”

For her part, Zapf said no one from the party has talked to her about a $20,000 donation, and declined to comment on if she’d take the money. The rules keep changing, she said.

“Whatever the rules are, we’ll follow them,” Zapf said.

— LIAM DILLON

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